How much are you willing to work for it?

Supposedly George Frideric Handel wrote “The Messiah” in just over three weeks. Mozart could whip out a minuet over coffee, hand it over to a creditor and thereby take care of his debts. And some composer whose name I’ve forgotten apparently would write out orchestral pieces one entire part at a time—the flute part, beginning to end; then the oboe; the clarinet; and so on down through the brass, percussion and strings—since he had the entire thing worked out in his head!

These are the kind of stories I heard when I was studying music composition in college (back in a prior millennium).

Amazing, right? Apocryphal? Perhaps; although it seems pretty well established that Handel did write the Messiah in an incredibly fast burst of creativity. And there’s no doubt that Mozart was phenomenally productive in his 36 years on earth.

But truthfully, these kinds of stories may have done me more harm than good. I can’t relate to such seemingly superhuman creative output. How many of us can? These stories further the idea that creativity is magical, or effortless, or perhaps entirely the province of god-like geniuses.

But it’s not. Sure, there are geniuses out there, and sure, for some creativity does come easier. But stories of exceptional creativity held up as anything but that—exceptional—serve only to distract from the reality of what any significant endeavor requires: hard work, perseverance, and sweat.

The day you realize it’s time to start over

Since December, I’ve been working on a new draft of the final act of my novel, and much of it is coming together well. But the last few weeks have been spent on a critical passage that sets up the climax, and I’ve started having serious doubts about it: Some pieces were feeling a bit contrived. Some character motivations didn’t truly make sense. And a critical incident didn’t seem entirely logical, believable… or even physically possible.


So it was time for a conference with one of my go-to writing critique partners. That’s right, my thirteen-year-old daughter, Carolyn. Her credentials? Poet. Short story writer. Lyricist. If I’d written as much as she has back when I was her age, I’d no doubt be a better writer now. But no time for regrets, it’s time for a consultation.

It was just the two of us one night, so I asked what she wanted to do. She suggested we go to the fancy Starbucks and write. Well, twist my arm! After an hour or so of writing, we headed over to Breakfast in America for burgers and to talk over our respective works-in-progress.

When it was my turn, I laid out the situation of the scene I’ve been concerned about. As soon as I got to the critical moment, she looked at me and said, “Oh, this is what’s going to happen, right?” and proceeded to predict precisely where the painfully predictable scene was going.

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The idea factory

“Do you take drugs to get your ideas?”

Did my ears deceive me? Had she really just asked that? What did she take me for?

No. Yes. And… I’m not quite sure.


It was a serious question, although one I can’t say I’ve ever had posed to me before. And so once again, living in a new country and meeting people from all over the world has meant having conversations I’ve never had before. (Another time, I met a Moroccan man with an Islamic background who asked me, “Is it easy for you to practice your religion?” But that’s a whole other story I’ll post about sometime.)

It was Saturday night and I was at Matilda’s, a party room/bar-kind-of-place inside the Australian Embassy just around the corner from the Eiffel Tower. It was their celebration for Australia Day and the cover band I’ve been playing with here—The Doodads—was providing the jams for the evening. In between sets I got to talking with one of the guests and we had the usual expat conversation: where are you from, what are you doing in Paris, how long are you here, etc., etc.

When I said I was writing a novel she asked what it was about. Even after all this time, I’m still working on my elevator speech of what the story is. It’s a little bit sci-fi, but without spaceships, time travel, aliens or ray-guns. It’s a little bit thriller and a little bit mystery; it’s character-driven and yet tightly plotted. (At least I hope it is—plot holes are the bane of a writer’s existence. Unless you’re working on a big-budget Hollywood action flick. Then you don’t care.) The most apt contemporary lingo for the genre would be “speculative fiction,” but I haven’t run into anyone outside of writerly circles who’s even heard that term.

So I described the initial set up of the plot, at which point most people say something like “that’s very interesting” and then we move on to other things. But not this time. She asked a few more questions, to the point that I’d have to get into more of the foundational premises of my invented world to even describe the basic workings of the plot. And so I paused and asked, “How deep do you want to get into this?” I didn’t want to start waxing long and boringly if she was only making polite conversation. But she said go deep. Ok. So I briefly sketched my novel-world where crimes and sins are dealt with by purging the memory of them from people’s minds, and where people can go to the black-market to purge their unwanted memories—or even those of other people.

We talked about the central conflict driving the plot and the interests of the main characters. And that was when she asked me the question about where the ideas come from—was it the drugs? Maybe it’s because I was playing in the band and everyone knows rock bands are full of drug heads who are always getting high before going on stage. (That’s a joke. Mostly.)

The idea factory

But the answer to where ideas come from, where the fount of creativity can be found is pretty mundane. Sure, there are those who have gotten inspiration from pills or powder or whatever other mind-altering thing they can find. But for the rest of us, it doesn’t require such extreme measures. It requires something much less exciting.

It’s called hard work.

Edison’s famous line is right on the money: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” I make no claims to genius-hood, but I do know that this is true for any serious creative endeavor.

It’s a curious thing, creativity. It has this air of magic, a kind of mystique that surrounds it. Where does it come from? Is it only for the chosen few? I’d wager that at least as often as people have wanted to talk about what I’m writing, they’ve wanted to talk about how creativity works. How do you get inspired, they ask? Do you have to wait for inspiration to come?

You want the truth? Can you handle the truth?

The key to creativity isn’t about living in Paris, as lovely as this city is. It’s not about waiting for inspiration to strike. It’s not about orchestrating the perfect circumstances—as much as I like to do my writing in a historic library or a comfortable café, listening to the perfect music (like Brahms or Palestrina or Sigur Rós), sipping a robust, not-too-bitter beverage. No, it’s about going to work. Opening the document. Picking up the pen. Putting in the time.

One time when someone asked me if I waited for inspiration to come, I asked in reply, “Do you wait to be inspired before you go to work?” Creative ideas don’t fall out of the sky fully-formed, to be found only by the lucky privileged elite. They’re fashioned and forged, tested and refined.

A practical example: J.R.R. Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” points out that it is one thing to imagine a world with a green sun—after all, anyone can write “the green sun”—but it is an entirely different matter to create a secondary world where such a green sun is “credible, commanding Secondary Belief.” And what, Mr. Tolkien, is the key to such an achievement? “Labour and thought.”

How true this is. My novel is set in a world in which the contemporary religious climate arose in a technologically advanced culture; and as well, their foundational “exodus” experience involves a catastrophic stellar event much nearer and more devastating than anything that’s ever happened to our planet. But just like it’s easy to say “the green sun” yet hard to make it fully believable, so it’s easy to dream up an exploding star and yet something else entirely to make it all actually work in the story. Making it work takes work. If you wait for inspiration, you may wait a long time.

So for me, this hard work has meant asking lots of “what if?” questions. What if a religion developed in an advanced culture? Right there, you’ve got a hundred implications, no shortage of possibilities. Asking the question is easy. Now comes the hard part—thinking it all through.

So much more could be said about creativity: how to be on the lookout for ideas, how to be attentive to the world around us for possibilities, how to test ideas to see if they’re worth exploring… for however long it’s going to take to flesh them out, whether it’s a novel, a painting, or a business proposal, or anything else. Yes, so much more could be said, but I’ve got work to do.

One last thing: I told the woman at the embassy, no, it wasn’t drugs. But I’m taking her question as a compliment. I’m going with the idea that the story I was telling her sounded compelling, like something hard to believe anyone could have come up with—in the amazing/wow/whowouldathunkit kind of way.

Yeah. I’m going with that.