How to Find Inspiration To Write When You Feel Like Crap

by Craig Playstead May 22, 2014

“Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us sit down and get to work”

Chuck Close, artist

Expecting to be inspired all the time is like expecting Don Draper to remember someone’s birthday. In theory, it seems great, but you’re a fool to count on it.

When writing professionally or when you’re starting down that road, you can’t wait for inspiration. Amateurs and hacks do that, not you. There are scary deadlines and stellar clients waiting for you to deliver — and deliver big, so quality has to come from those fingertips and the big piece of mush you call a brain. I can’t tell you how many times I was up at 2 AM grinding away on something when I really felt like going to bed or eating a full pizza while watching Three’s Company re-runs. But I got it done.

We all have the inspiration of Jeff Spicoli in math class sometimes. Ask ten different creative people how to beat this and you’ll probably get ten different ideas. That’s the beauty of creativity. One thing I do that really helps me is keeping a folder in my Evernote that’s called, “Writing I Love.” Corny, yes, but referring back to these works of art with I have nothing in the tank works wonders for me. Sometimes they’re short stories, other times articles, but can also just be a line or passage that blew me away.

Those pieces inspire me to put my ass in the chair and bang away at the keyboard like a monkey in heat. It’s also a reminder that in order to create your best work sometimes you need to push through the fog until you come out the other side. I imagine the stellar work in my Evernote coming only after the writers pushed through a rough patch where all they wanted to do was quit and hang with their friends, but instead they produced gold. It’s a huge secret to becoming good at anything; when it seems impossible and all you want to do is quit, don’t. That’s when you make the biggest gains and improve the most. Unfortunately, that’s when most people quit. Damn shame, but good for those of us who crank through the humiliation and confusion to come out the other side.

The pieces below are just a few of my favorites, but it’s a good representation of the kind of work that can light a fire and get things going in the right direction. I like the wide variety of approaches they take, which can help depending on what you’re working on. Or just your mood. You have the greatest writer of our generation, a blogger, a frat-boy sportswriter and someone who details the pain of life like few others.

Federer as Religious Experience, David Foster Wallace
Wallace is the greatest writer of our generation. No, he didn’t sell the most, have everything he touched made into a movie or reach rock star status like John Grisham or authors who write about near-sighted wizards. He did something much more impressive: he was able to make things you don’t care about seem like the most interesting thing in the world. That’s the great secret of writing; making things interesting. He made a piece about tennis interesting, and I don’t even like tennis.

How to Leave a Teenager Alone, Mike Sager
Sager is an author and a longtime writer at Esquire (who still have some of the greatest writers) and writes in a way that reminds you that you’re not the only one that life serves a shit sandwich to sometimes. Here he takes on what the roller coaster ride is like when parenting a teenager. It’s so true and makes you think.

When You’re Lost Don’t Hide, Penelope Trunk
People love or hate her, and sometimes both, but Penelope is a gifted writer who bleeds on her computer with each new blog post she writes. We’re all crazy, she just admits it.

Growing Queasy in the Big Easy, Bill Simmons
This article launched the career of Bill Simmons and really vaulted him from writing a blog in his undies to being media royalty at ESPN as a studio host on NBA Countdown and the Editor-in-Chief of Grantland. This article about his week in New Orleans for the Super Bowl is fall on the ground funny and also signaled to writers everywhere that you could make a career writing on the web.

I also keep TV shows and movies on my DVR with the trophy-like branding of “keep until I delete” when I’m blown away with the writing or structure. I saved damn near every Mad Men from the 2012 season because the writing was so good that it made me want to drop everything and write like a maniac.

Give it a shot. Start saving things you love and refer back to them when you need a little kick in the ass. Or just bookmark this article and use mine. That’s what I’m here for.

(image courtesy of Liz West via Creative Commons)

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