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On Inspiration and Getting Started

Pub Date: Dec 31, 2014

in_admin-ajaxMeet our new monthly columnist, award-winning author William Kowalski! This article is reprinted with permission from the book: WRITING FOR FIRST-TIME NOVELISTS, Practical Thoughts on the Creative Craft,  by William Kowalski © 2014  


On The Need For A Routine

My writing mentor, W.S. “Jack” Kuniczak, used to tell me that in order to write a book,
the writer has to become immersed in that world. This doesn’t happen overnight, and it
can’t be faked. It’s a world of your own creation, but even so, this doesn’t make you the
owner of it. You are only one more resident. In fact, you may understand it less than
the characters who populate it–because you, after all, are a visitor from the outside,
while they live there all the time. And you cannot become immersed in your story if you
visit it only occasionally. You must become familiar. You should be known well enough
to the characters in your book that they don’t even bother to look up any longer when
you enter the room.

What does all this mean? Simply put, it means the novelist needs to write on a regular
basis, preferably every day, if he ever expects to finish the thing.

Of course, you don’t have to be sitting at your desk to go to that world. When I’m writing
a book, I’m thinking about it all the time–sometimes consciously, sometimes
unconsciously. Sometimes leaving my desk is the best thing to force new ideas to the
surface. They will occur to me as I’m in the middle of something completely unrelated,
like taking a shower, stacking firewood, working in the garden, or going for a long walk.
These are all mindless activities, but because they engage a certain portion of my brain,
they allow another part of it to go to work and send up ideas, like balloons from the
bottom of the sea.

But the words don’t make it on to the page unless I am planted at my desk, and
sometimes this means showing up whether I feel like it or not. If my creative batteries
aren’t charged, if I have nothing to give that day, then I don’t try to force it. This is a
good way to get burned out. But I still show up anyway, just in case I’m wrong, just in
case there’s something worthwhile lurking beneath the laziness that seems to be my
natural state.

A routine is important for other reasons, too: because of something musicians call
“chops”. Chops is a kind of all-encompassing term given to a professional musician’s
particular playing style. It’s the reason you can tell a Carlos Santana guitar solo from a
Mark Knopfler guitar solo in an instant. You develop chops only after years of
dedication and practice. This applies to other disciplines as well. And like a razor blade
that grows dull from disuse, your chops degrade quickly. Concert pianists say that if
they skip even a day of practice, they can sense the effects for days afterward.
Skipping a week can set them back six months. Craftsmen such as painters or
sculptors know they must constantly hone their technique if they are to keep their edge.
Writing is every bit the same blend between technical skill and art as these pursuits.
You need to keep at it on a regular basis if you are to stay at a constant level of skill, let
alone improve.

A word here about the difference between skill and art. The ancient Greeks made a
distinction between the two. Skill, by which we might mean manual dexterity or mastery
of a set of principles, was called techne (τέχνη). This is the source of words like
technique, technician, and technical. We still use this word in the same way today.
The Greeks used another word, poiesis (from ποιέω), to describe what we mean when
we talk about the higher meaning of the word art. This is the source of our word poetry.
It carries something of the meaning of ‘to make’, but in a more metaphysical sense than
simply fabricating or assembling something in a technical way. It has to do with bringing
together thought and matter in an artistic manner that will strike some people as
beautiful. Perhaps it actually means giving it a soul. That’s the best interpretation of
poiesis my limited twenty-first century mind can come up with.

When someone becomes very good at the techne of something, even if it’s not
something we typically think of as an art, we say of that person, “He’s raised it to an art
form.” In fact, we especially say this of someone who has gotten good at something we
don’t think of as an art. We never say of someone, “He’s raised painting to an art form.”
Painting already was an art form. But we might say of someone who’s very good at
carpentry, which can be practiced unartistically and still be perfectly useful, “He’s gotten
so good at carpentry he’s raised it to an art form.” The ancient Greek interpretation of
art is alive and well in our modern consciousness.

So, writing involves both techne and poiesis–both technical skill and poetic vision. You
must work at developing both aspects of this craft if you want to become a master.

Trouble Getting Started

We all know the feeling. We have the burning urge to write. We must get it down on
paper. We feel we are about to self-combust. There are words leaping in our heart like
trout in a flaming lake, and we are sure that the world would benefit by them if only we
could get them out.

The only question is: what are they?

It seems to me, at the age of forty-four, that this describes how I felt throughout my
teens and early twenties. For several years, I had what could only be described as an
unfocused yearning. It was so great that it sometimes kept me up at night. I’ve never
really wanted anything other than to be a writer. But I didn’t care about becoming
wealthy or famous, except as a byproduct. What I really wanted to do was write
something so beautiful and true that all who read it would be forever altered, something
that I myself would be so proud of that I could point to it and say, You see? This is what I
can do.

I have no idea what made me this way. I have plenty of theories, of course. But in this
respect, I’m like the man who is walking across a bridge over a river and suddenly
notices his pants are on fire. He can stand there wondering why his pants are on fire,
he can complain about how unfair it is that his pants are on fire, he can try to blame
someone else for setting his pants on fire–or he can jump in the water.
It doesn’t matter why I want to write. It just matters that I do.

Time and time again, I sat down at my little desk in the basement of the house in which I
grew up in Erie, PA, only to stare at the blank paper in my typewriter (I had a typewriter 
then, because this was a thousand years ago) without a clue what key I should hit first.
What did I want to say?

Before I could answer that question, I had to answer a deeper question: Who was the
‘I’ who felt he had something to say?

Writing, especially fiction, is a personal journey. This is the real purpose of it–not to
become a best-selling author, but to come to know ourselves.

If becoming a professional author is your goal, then fine, but you will have to accept at
some point that your personal journey of discovery is not necessarily what everyone
wants to read about. People read fiction to be transported and entertained–not to find
out what makes you, personally, tick.

What we’re talking about here is not what’s going to make an editor leap out of his chair
and order a hundred thousand copies. You might never write about the things you
discover about yourself. Instead, we’re talking about unwrapping the secrets of your
soul and getting you in touch with the source of your power as a writer. Then you can
write whatever you want, and if it’s a best-selling paperback, more power to you. But if
it’s a handwritten and -illustrated journal that your relatives don’t even know exists until
you die and they’re cleaning out your desk, then that’s just as worthy a pursuit. We are
not talking right now about getting published. We are talking, very simply, about writing.
There are some big differences between the two. Writing is an art form. Publishing is a
business. The former does not necessarily involve the latter.

There are some key points you need to remember if you are having trouble getting
started. If you have that urge to write but you don’t know what to say, you have to
consider two possibilities.
The first is this: maybe you just need to spend some quiet time getting in touch with
whatever it is deep inside you that wants to come bubbling to the surface. Turn off your
television, put away your phone, tell no one where you are going, and leave the house
for a while.

Maybe you need to spend some more time out in the world, doing and learning things,
so that you have some experiences to write about. Approach the things you are most
afraid of. Leave behind that which is familiar. Go out into the world and test yourself.
Nobody wants to hear that they’re not ready to start writing, so let me hasten to assure
you: that’s not what I mean. The good news, which may seem to you like bad news, is
that the burning desire to write is not going to go away. If you decide to go spend a year
living in a yurt in Mongolia, that urge will still be there when you’re done… only now
you’ll have that amazing experience to add to your inventory of mental touchstones.

Trouble Staying Motivated

Many hopeful writers have told me they’ve gotten a story well under way, but were
perplexed to find that they ran out of steam before even hitting the halfway point. They
just couldn’t bring themselves to work on it any longer. They ask me why this is, as if I
am some sort of physician of writing who can diagnose the various maladies that afflict
people of our kind.

Actually, to some extent, I can. Nearly all of the roadblocks we run into are selfimposed.
And sometimes, though we are loth to admit it, our problem is that we are
afraid of success. We have inner demons that prevent us from pursuing what we really
want, because we don’t believe we really deserve it. We do things to sabotage our own
futures. To you people, I say: Your issue is bigger than you realize, so get thee to a
therapist, pronto. Your neurosis is not imaginary. It’s real, it won’t fix itself, and it can
ruin your life.

(Does going to a shrink mean you’re crazy? Hell, no. In this insane modern world,
where no one goes outside any more, our food is literally killing us, and everyone is
bombarded with thousands of bits of stimuli per day–much of it horrifying–you’re crazy
if you don’t see a therapist.)

Or, maybe we got to a certain point and realized we just didn’t need to write this book
any more. Once we found out what’s really involved in writing a whole book–the
tedium, the repetition, the hours in the chair, the frustration, the very real chance that it
will never be praised by anyone except friends and family–we decided it’s just not for
us. There is nothing wrong with making that decision, not if it starts to feel like

I am reminded of my first year at St. John’s College, which is located in the foothills of
the beautiful Sangre de Cristo mountains, just outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was so
entranced by the beauty of the landscape that I often went hiking. It was easy to do.
Just outside the door of my freshman dormitory, there was a mountain called Monte Sol,
or Sun Mountain. The hike to the top afforded a stunning view of the city of Santa Fe
and the entire Galisteo Valley. It took about an hour, and at 7,500 feet above sea level,
it was a taxing climb. Often, as I made that hike, I thought about turning back before
reaching the top. After all, the view from there was nearly as good as it would be from
the summit. I had gained practically all the same exercise benefits I would from
finishing my climb. The only difference would be that I couldn’t say I had made it all the
way. That, more often than not, was what kept me going when nothing else would.
My attempts to minimize the importance of reaching the top were really just a way to
justify giving up. There was no substitute for the feeling of coming out onto the broad,
bald rock face of the summit, where legend had it an ancient tribe once worshiped the
sun. It was a great sense of accomplishment. Writing a book is very much the same.
You can write most of a book, and you can learn a lot from the experience, but you
won’t really feel that you have written a book unless you actually… you know… write a
book. All of it. Just like I couldn’t honestly say I had climbed a mountain unless I had
climbed the entire mountain… not just most of it.

The fact is, lots of people start books and never finish them. I have no hard and fast
numbers available, but I can easily invent some: for every hundred people who start a
book, only one of them will actually finish it. There, that sounds, convincing, doesn’t it?
In my experience, it’s close enough to the truth to be called truish. I know plenty of
people who have great ideas for books, or have started writing books, but very few who
have finished.

The biggest difference between successful writers and failed writers is that successful
writers finish what they start. This is more important than talent, more important than a
brilliant idea, more important than a fancy education or a strong vocabulary. There is no
substitute for it. If you don’t finish writing something, none of those other factors even

But let’s be reasonable. You don’t need to force yourself to finish every project you
start. Sometimes there are very good reasons for abandoning something. It could be
that the idea just wasn’t very good to begin with, and it took you a while to see it. That’s
okay. It happens to me a lot, in fact. For every book idea I have, I probably only pursue
one percent of them, and ultimately might only finish %.001 percent. That means for
every thousand book ideas I have, only one of them actually becomes a book.
So then, so what if you start a book and don’t finish? Whose goddam business is it
besides yours? No one’s, of course. But there is something I want to warn you about,
and that is regret. Regret for simply not having tried is the worst kind of all. She got
lazy, she didn’t feel like it, she got caught up in other stuff. There’s no shame in any of
this, either. The shame comes later, sometimes years later, when she’s married with
three children and is working a soul-crushing job with no end in sight. Then she will
think, What would my life be like if I’d finished that book? Maybe it wouldn’t be any
different. Chances are it wouldn’t have brought her fame and fortune. But it would have
been finished. Maybe she would feel better than she does about herself now. The thing
is… she’ll never know. And that’s the real shame.

So, I really can’t tell you much about how to stay motivated. You’ll have to find your own
way to do this. All I can say is: that book isn’t going to write itself, and if you don’t write
it, no one else will. The world won’t be any different if you don’t write it. And that’s
precisely why you should.


 William Kowalski was born in Cleveland, OH in 1970, grew up in Erie, PA, and now lives
in Nova Scotia, Canada with his wife and children. He is the author of ten works of
fiction, including five Rapid Reads for Reluctant Readers (published by Orca/Raven)
and five novels (published by HarperCollins and Dundurn in the US and Canada and
Transworld/Doubleday in the UK). He has won the Exclusive Books’ Ama Boeke Award
(South Africa, 2001), twice been nominated for the Ontario Library Association’s Golden
Oak Award, and has also been nominated for the 2014 Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic
Fiction Award.

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Reprinted with permission from the book:

Practical Thoughts on the Creative Craft
by William Kowalski 
© 2014 by William Kowalski

Eddie’s Bastard
Somewhere South of Here
The Adventures of Flash Jackson
The Good Neighbor
The Hundred Hearts
Rapid Reads for Reluctant Readers
The Barrio Kings
The Way It Works
Something Noble
Just Gone
The Innocence Device