Faulker’s advice about ignoring inspiration

Slate had a cool series a while ago now called “Daily Rituals” about the habits that one should have to produce art, specifically writing. The 15th part is about ignoring inspiration.

William Faulkner: “I write when the spirit moves me, and the spirit moves me every day.” George Balanchine: “My muse must come to me on union time.” Chuck Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” John Updike: “I’ve never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think that the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again.” George Gershwin said that if he waited for inspiration, he would compose at most three songs a year.

Great advice if you’re in a situation where producing art on a nearly constant basis will be meaningful. My question is: What good is writing 50 or 100 songs a year if you can’t reasonably work on more than 20 (notice that tag “work ethic”)? Or play more than 10 of those 20 live, or practice them all to figure out which ones are good? Or take advantage when you pull The One out of those 50 (because who cares if you write the Best Song Ever and only 5 people hear it)? This is just songs. I’m not even going to get into the implications for writing fiction.

Originally I was going to post about what a great idea Faulkner’s was for professional artists, but then I thought to myself: this is my blog, and I’m not a professional artist. Instead, I’m just going to point out a major difference between truly professional artists and … the rest of us, good or otherwise. That difference, I think, is that professional artists have the time, resources, and opportunities necessary to make writing constantly not a complete waste of time.

I do know that professionals also get roped into publication, release, and promotion schedules that overwhelm the ability to work on something and get it to the point of greatness. That’s a separate matter. I’m sure it has something to do with many people producing their best work early in their careers, even accounting for the two decades they had to write their first album or novel (versus a year or two for each successive).

I hope no one thinks this post is overly negative … maybe if there ARE some professional artists reading this, they will chime in with whether they are able to take advantage of “excess production.” This is, after all, just speculation on my part. The closest I’ve ever come to that is when I took a summer off after college to work on writing a novel, and spent 8-12 hours a day doing nothing but writing.

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