Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Inspiration and Motivation

Inspiration move me brightly – Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia, Terrapin Station
MOVE IT! Or I’m going to rip your balls off, so you cannot contaminate the rest of the world! – Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, Full Metal Jacket
About a week ago someone asked on Absolute Write, ‘When you are stuck at a point in your writing(as I am right now lol) what do you do for inspiration?’ The bulk of the answers in that thread gave suggestions that focused on priming the pump, so to speak: doing things that would help generate ideas, ranging from moving to a different writing location to interviewing characters. But the original question was, after thinking about it, kind of vague. Did the poster want to know how/where to get ideas to unblock his writing? Or was he asking how to get himself in the chair now that the going was tought? In other words, was he looking for inspiration or motivation, and what is the difference? Is there a difference?
I think there is. Motivation is the overarching reason behind writing. There are as many different reasons for writing as there are people who write. Just this morning, in a nice bit of serendipity, a fresh thread on AW popped up: Why do you Write? A lot of people answered ‘Money and fame’ or words to that effect. Others described it as a form of release and escape, others as a particular form of self-expression. For me? I’m not 100% sure. I’d love to be a Famous Author and make a lot of money, sure. I suppose that’s a big part of the motivation for me, but there’s something else at work here, too. It’s a less-concrete motivation. I have some stories that I want to tell, and this is how they’re expressed. I’m motivated to tell these stories.
There’s a lower-level motivation, too. This is the thing that gets me in the chair when the going gets tough, and I’ve already talked about his in an earlier post. Allow me to quote myself. From The Gambler, Part I:
I want you to read my book. I want lots of people to read my book.
And:
A book that doesn’t get written doesn’t get published, and a book that doesn’t get published doesn’t get read.
That’s motivation, right there. If I want you to read it, I’ve got to write it. Motivation is equal parts cattle prod and carrot-on-a-stick. It’s Gunny Hartman screaming curses in your ear, telling you that the best part of you ‘ended up as a brown stain on the mattress.’ (yecch)  But it’s also the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the reward for hard work
Inspiration is—well, I just don’t quite have the words for it. It’s the mysterious, wonderful part of the process. It’s not ‘Why do you write’, it’s ‘why do you write what you write?’ It’s what you point to when someone asks, ‘where did that come from?’
It’s hard to know where the inspiration will come from. In some cases, it’s the result of multiple things getting thrown in a crock pot and allowed to simmer all day (or for a few months, as the case may be). Instead of consulting a recipe and adding 1 cup of this, 2 teaspoons of that, and a chopped up doohickey and baking for forty-five minutes at 350 degrees, it’s throw in everything you’ve got and hope it doesn’t kill anyone.
Inspiration is what makes you jump up in the middle of the night reaching for the pad and paper you keep by the bed. It’s what someone sees in you at a cocktail party when they try to talk to you, but you’re eyes are shiny and you stare off at a point in space over their shoulder, and you mutter an answer at them (if they’re lucky). Inspiration is when you find yourself hopping from foot to foot in line at the grocery store, hoping that no one starts talking to you before you can get this thing down on a piece of paper.
As different as they seem to be, inspiration and motivation often follow each other closely. Think about it: what better motivation is there than when a bolt of inspiration hits you right in the head? Inspiration hits, and you’re instantly motivated to get your backside in the chair and write. Moments like that are indeed precious.
But it works the other way, too. There have been a number of times I’ve sat down with no inspiration whatsoever, facing a story or scene that just isn’t right, unable to see how to make it better, and not at all sure that I want to spend a couple of hours banging my head against the keyboard. “I can skip it for today,” I might think, but then Gunny Hartman gets in my face. “Do you want to finish the damn story? You do? Then get your ass in that chair and start writing.” (like that, only with more cursing) Quite often, after a bit of struggling, Inspiration peeks around the door, and the problem goes away. Best of all, it shuts Gunny Hartman right up. Who can work with all that shouting?
Hope you all have a pleasant weekend.

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