A few weeks back I participated in the inaugural Illumination Author Event in Denver. The Illumination events are wonderful intimate events where readers get to have lunch and network with their favorite authors. The first event was in Denver, but they are being scheduled all over the country. Check out the link above for more details.
As part of the event each author gives a talk. I thought I’d share a version of it here, for those unable to make it to the event. I called the talk The Magic of Finishing. What do you think? Tell me in the comments below.
~ The Talk ~
I remember writing my first short story, I was about nine years old. I called it Halloween Ghost and it was about a boy stumbling upon a haunted house while trick-or-treating. The boy is captured by the resident ghost. But it turns out the ghost is a friendly sort and was just giving away giant servings of ice cream. In reading it now two things are very apparent, one – my love for all things speculative has been a life long passion, and two – spelling was not a gift of mine at that point in my life! I’m pretty sure I found every possible spelling of the word ghost in the 100 words that made up that story! Also, full disclosure, I still love ice cream.
I was very excited about the assignment, I remember it clearly – I loved writing even then. But what I remember most clearly is the lightning strike of inspiration I got when the story popped into my mind. The idea seemed to come straight out of the aether – some gypsy-voodoo-black-magic that I’d somehow managed to get on me or to step in. Like walking through an unseen spider web, though much more pleasant. (And with none of the frenetic GET IT OFF ME dancing.)
It felt as if it had come from out there, rather than from inside of me.
I continued to write over the years, but I never finished a story. I wrote while I rode the wave of inspiration but when inspiration abandoned me I abandoned the story. For decades this was my pattern. My life is littered with half written books, characters half formed, their lives paused 1/4 of the way down a page, with a backstory but no future story. Villains abandoned at their peak, hero’s forced to linger at their point of greatest weakness, characters stuck where things are most dark, most dire. It’s pretty gruesome back there!
Somewhere after that first lightning flash of inspiration I’d picked up the habit of seeing writing itself as gypsy-voodoo-black-magic. Something that came from “out there” and if it comes from “out there” that means I have no control over it. I am subject to the fickle whims of the muse. If the muse stops weaving her magic what am I, a mere mortal, to do about it?
In looking back at it now I realized I’d believed this about all sorts of things, not just writing. I’d never really finished anything that mattered. Yea… I did the usual stuff – I graduated from high school and went to college. I graduated from college too, and got a job. That job led to another job and into roles with increasing responsibilities. By all outward indications I was successful and accomplished. But I knew something no one else knew.
You see, when I was nine I wanted to be a writer. By the time I started college I wanted to be a biologist or chemist. I left college with a BS in Criminal Justice (pre-law) and by the time I started working in my first “real job” it was in technology.
Now, meandering paths are not uncommon at that stage of life – many, maybe most of us, have no clear idea what we want to do when we’re twenty. But what might not be so obvious is that, for me at least, the spaces between those bullet points were trade off’s.
Science for writing – it’s a far more pragmatic career choice.
Criminal Justice for science because it was just plain easier.
Technology for law because that’s where I could find a job.
It turns out I loved working in technology, I’d stumbled into another passion and I’ve stayed there ever since. But even here there were tradeoff’s. Despite what I told others, and despite what I told myself at the time, the underlying reason for every one of these trade off’s was fear.
What if I can’t do it?
What if I’m not good enough?
Not smart enough?
Not cool enough?
What if I try my hardest, but still fail?
Instead of working hard for what I wanted most, I spent my time working a little for what came easiest. It was easy to blame the fickle muse for this. To hide the path of least resistance within the guise of magic-from-the-aether. To claim I followed the path of inspiration. But eventually I started to wonder about this muse of mine. What kind of sick bitch was she to start me down one path only to yank the rug from under me and send me careening off in some new direction? It was like the most serious game of keep-away I’ve ever heard of!
Now, to be clear, we should follow our inspirations. Inspiration is an expression of our intuition, it tells us where our passion lies, where our talents reside. But believing that people accomplish things because they have some super-secret tie in with some super-muse, or because they’re gifted with gypsy-voodoo-black-magic is a mistake. The truth is that finishing stuff is hard no matter who you are. And it takes a lot more than inspiration to carry things through to the end. Whether you are getting your degree, getting fit enough to jog a mile, or writing a book, finishing is the hardest thing you’ll ever do.
Inspiration is designed for the start. Sweat, dedication, and courage are designed for the finish. I’d lived my life waiting for the magic. I’d made the mistake of believing all I needed was that magic. I’d forgotten all about sweat part. I’d forgotten the courage part.
There really IS magic in writing, and in life. Inspiration and creativity are magical… random junk from day to day life go in, it sloshes around somewhere in your gut, turning into some primordial semi-toxic stew that occasionally vents off some nasty stench, and then suddenly out of the blue – POOF! Ideas come out. It’s an amazing thing. I’ve got no clue how it works.
But the actual writing part, the doing, is sweat and courage. It’s showing up EVERY SINGLE DAY no matter where your muse is. Some days, the magical ones, words flow like warm honey. Other days it feels like you’re crawling across a mile of used needles, bloody hospital scalpels and poo.
When I realized all of this I realized my muse had done her job well. The rest of it was on me. So, I found my courage and began finishing the really important things. I started writing again – in earnest – and I’ve published two books so far, realizing a lifelong dream of being a writer. I made a dizzying career change and launched my own business, I finished a degree I’d long wanted but kept putting off. Inspiration told me what was important, sweat and courage helped me to finish the job.
You see, finishing has nothing to do with inspiration and has everything to do with hard work and the courage to keep to your path. It’s showing up every day, as I mentioned. It’s refusing to give in to the blank looks you get from people when you tell them what you’re trying to do, it’s continuing with your efforts even when you see no results. It’s not glamorous. It’s actually quite ugly. It often involves crying. There’s almost always blood. But after all of that, at the end of the day, when you have finished, it is pure magic.