The statistics of inspiration
Recently, I read Moneyball, and was thus inducted into the great American pantheon of writers who are allowed to use sports metaphors in everyday life (other members: Aaron Sorkin, George Will, and a whole bunch of other center-right blowhards). In this book, Michael Lewis described how baseball statisticians discovered that the key to winning games was to get on base and the key to getting on base was to get walks and the key to getting walks was to know exactly when to swing and when not to swing. He describes how the Oakland A’s tried to drum the importance of not swinging into its players and how, when that failed, they went out and bought players who knew when not to swing.
It’s very hard for the players to not swing. A walk is a bit boring. Hitting the bat with the ball is exciting. All the incentives are aligned in favor of hitting the ball. The player who gets hits is a much-feted; the player who gets walks is just kind of dull. In order to not swing, a player needs to have a bone-deep, intuitive understanding of the statistical realities of the sport. They need to really understand, on some more-than-rational level, that if they don’t swing at marginal pitches then those extra walks will come and that those extra walks will mean extra runs and that those extra runs will mean extra wins.
And that seems like a pretty hard thing to do. The human brain isn’t good at understanding statistical realities like that. But, in order to be effective at anything, it needs to understand that any sustained endeavor is going to succeed or fail based primarily on the underlying statistics, and that the most it can do is try to alter those statistics a few points in its favor.
Which brings me to the analogy. Lately, I’ve been trying to gain an intuitive understanding of the statistics of inspiration. The classic model (at least in the SF world) is that inspiration doesn’t matter. It’s nice when it happens, but the rest of the time, you can just bull through and write anyway and it will turn out more or less fine.
I don’t subscribe to this model. I believe that writing is pretty much entirely inspiration. Ideas, stories, characters, phrases…they all appear out of the ether. The most that the rational mind can do is manipulate and distort and conjoin them in fairly predictable ways so that they fit together according to established narrative models. The essential goodness and newness seems, to me, to come from some unconscious place.
But the fact remains that you can’t (and won’t) feel inspired all the time. In fact, on 3 days out of 4, I have no inspiration. On these days, I listlessly churn through words and wait for my allotted writing time to end.
I think it’s important (for me) to write on uninspired days. Sometimes the inspiration descends upon you between one word and the next and I catch fire and then I’m on. And even when I don’t, I often explore words and ideas and situations that will someday become the raw material of future inspiration.
But I also think it’s important to not swing when an uninspired idea comes whizzing by. Because right now I am good enough that I can go through the motions in a very mechanical way and make a story out of pretty much anything. That story won’t be good and it probably won’t sell, but I can definitely do it. Someday, I’ll be good enough that even my rote, mechanical stories will be good enough to sell.
But what’s the point of that? I think it’s worthwhile to gain a conscious understanding of narrative models and character voice and all that other great stuff, but writing isn’t about finishing stories or producing words or even gaining acceptances…it’s about writing interesting fiction. I’ve lost faith in the notion that it’s possible to produce interesting fiction mechanically. To me, it seems like interesting fiction almost always requires the mediation of some kind of inspiration.
But then…well…what do you do on uninspired days?
I guess that’s kind of a hard one. I don’t think it’s right (at least for me) to only write when I feel like it. I think it’s worthwhile to sit down and force my unconscious mind to produce something (anything). But I also think it’s important for me to relax and not feel so much anxiety whenever the inspiration isn’t flowing. I need to realize that some days will be good days and some days will be bad, and that a certain ratio of good to bad is entirely expected. I need to at least pretend like I live in a generous universe, where the inspiration will always return, eventually.
Otherwise, that anxiety makes me thrash around and chase down and complete stories that are no good…just so I can feel like I’m doing something. And while that might sometimes feel good, I don’t think it serves me well in the long run.