Writing Without Inspiration

May 01, 2008 |Susie Shellenberger

You can get there by breaking the rules.

I don't think Mrs. Milton knew what she was starting. She gave our fifth grade class the assignment of reading a book and reporting on it. After I read and reported on my book, I decided it couldn't be that tough to write one, so I created my own "book" and gave a second report. That was it. I was hooked.

The fact that The Magic Pillow was never read again or published didn't deter me, I was now convinced that writing was in my blood.

I began publishing professionally during junior high — nothing that would rock anyone's world except my own — but the fact I was getting paid was enough.

I obtained a bachelor's degree in communications with a double minor in English and creative writing and later received my master's degree in creative writing. Because writing is such a huge part of my life, I don't often think about the how of doing it, but I'd love to share some of the "secrets" I've learned along the way.

I'm Not a Pro

Though I write a lot, I don't consider myself a "real writer." I guess it's because I don't often follow the path of professional writers. I have friends who write full time, and I'm amazed at their discipline! One friend sits in her home office and makes herself crank out a specific number of pages each day. Another friend has her writing scheduled down to the hour and minute. Wow.

Here's how it works with me.

I'm not that disciplined.

I'm not a planner.

I am a procrastinator. (I should have a degree in procrastination!) If a writer is given 10 months to write a book, most will create an outline and write a little each day (or a little each week) until the book is finished in 10 months.

And though that's how I believe it should be done, I've never been able to make myself do that. If I have 10 months to write a book, I usually begin the project at nine months. Sometimes I've waited even longer and have written books in a week.

Do I recommend that? Absolutely not! Then why does it work for me? I'm not sure. I think part of it is simply because pressure motivates me, and I work very well under pressure. I'm used to magazine deadlines, and an article being pulled at the last minute and having to come up with something else on the spot. That's become my life.

Another reason this works for me is simply because I'm wired to do everything fast-paced. I think fast, move fast, talk fast, and I write fast. Do I recommend this? Again, no. I'm simply sharing how writing works for me.

The Real Secret

The most important thing I've learned about writing, however, is a treasured secret that can truly transform the way you create if you're able to adapt it.

Here it is: Learn to think through your fingers.

My college creative writer professor taught me this. "Don't wait until you're inspired to write," she said. "You may have an assignment to write on stewardship. Chances are, you may never get inspired to write on stewardship! Yet if that's your assignment, that's what you'll have to create. So instead of hoping inspiration will come, write without inspiration."

She told us to sit at the typewriter (yep, I've just admitted this was in the dark ages before computers!) and simply type. To "think through my fingers" means I sit down and command words to come. Imagine what a thrill this is to a publisher: To know he can call me at the last minute with a challenge such as, "This book deal is falling through with the author we had on board. He's no longer on the project. We heard you're a fast writer. Can you do the book in a week?"

Yes, I can.

I can't tell you how many assignments I've gotten simply because I've learned this secret! I have friends who have published, but they — like many writers — will sit in front of the computer for hours anguishing over each word. Is this the right verb choice? What should I say next?

They're wonderful writers, but they're not being contacted by publishers. I feel it's a great honor to have a publisher contact me and ask if I'll take on a book project!

So Throw Up!

To "write through my fingers" means I vomit words onto a computer screen. I can always go back later and edit and move paragraphs. But what's the main problem with writer's block? Simply getting started. Train yourself to sit in front of your computer and direct your thoughts through your fingers. Immediately. Don't wait. It has to be the process of NOW! This eliminates writer's block.

Does this mean you'll never be inspired? No. Inspiration will still come, but the problem with inspiration is ... none of us can predict when it will hit. So cherish inspiration, but instead of waiting for it to produce writing, strive to produce without being inspired.

I'm not negating inspiration; I'm simply trying to guide you around it. You'll still need inspiration to complete good writing. And it can come from a variety of places.

Inspiration?

Because I write a lot for teens, I've discovered I can get a lot of inspiration from secular teen magazines: Seventeen, Teen Vogue, Glamour, etc. And because only words — not ideas — can be copyrighted, I can take some great ideas from secular venues and turn them around: How can I give this a Christian spin?

A few months ago I picked up a copy of JANE in the airport. (It's since folded.) I thumbed through it and noticed an entire page toward the back of the mag featuring some 25 photos of bare-chested women. The point was to encourage female readers that their own physicality is beautiful — no matter how big or small the blessing is. (For what it's worth, I'm really glad the mag folded! We used to subscribe to it in the Brio office — along with Seventeen and a few others — but it was so raunchy, I couldn't feel good about perusing it or even having it lying around. So we discontinued our subscription years ago.)

This one day, however, having a lengthy layover in the airport, I decided to pick it up and see what we'd been missing out on. Apparently not much! But as I glanced at that page, I found myself thinking, What would the Christian spin on this be? And how could I bring it into a teen girl's world?

Instead of a page of women bragging about their endowment — or lack of — I thought, Why not challenge our teen girls to brag about their churches? Show off their places of worship with a photo!

So we launched the contest! And it was one of the most fulfilling things we've ever done through Brio! Our staff giggled and rejoiced over the vast amount and types of church photos and girls standing proudly in front of them. One girl bragged about her tiny church of 30. Another showed us the former drive-in movie theater that her church has taken over. Another proudly displayed a photo of her church that meets in the largest mall in America: The Mall of America in Minneapolis! We had the privilege of displaying churches from all around the world.

All from a stupid page about women bragging on their tops.

It's amazing where inspiration can come from! Several years ago, I noticed a page in a secular teen girl's mag featuring good-looking guys bragging about when they'd lost their virginity. That's how the column "Guy Talk" for Brio was born. I thought, Why not feature some cool Christian guys bragging about sexual purity and why they're holding out for marriage!

If you'll look hard enough, you can find inspiration anywhere. Another article featured teen girls boasting about the latest material stuff, how much it cost, where to get and why we had to have it. So I invited our readers to write in and brag about what they don't have. It was an incredibly fun two-page feature! We pictured girls from around the world who didn't have: electricity, running water, no family-owned vehicle, a TV, a church in which to meet, a house they could call their own, and on and on. It really made us think twice about what's important in life.

So you're searching for inspiration, and you just can't seem to find it. Then what? No sweat, because you're not going to depend on inspiration any longer! Your new goal is to think through your fingers.

Copyright 2008 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.

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