‘Inspiration’ etymologically comes from the Latin for ‘breathing into’. Unlike ‘inhale’ (to breathe in), ‘inspire’ means the breath comes from the outside, those external magical forces that give us life and fill us with energy, and animate us with ideas and creativity. (Similarly, to expire means not just to breathe out (‘exhale’) but that breath leaves your body, life leaves your body.)
Often, we feel we should wait to be ‘inspired’ to start writing. We want to wait until we feel we are filled up with ideas and certainty and energy to write. As Rowena Murray in How to Write a Thesis points out though, this often means you wait too long to start writing. Robert Boice in Professors as Writers identifies a common challenge for academic writers as ‘I’d rather write when I’m in the mood’ or ‘until there is enough “free time”‘ (p. 75).
And yet, as Boice found in his research, turning up regularly and ‘just writing’, whether or not you felt inspired or had time or were ready, could make someone nine times more productive.
Boice suggests a daily writing habit, but, as Helen Sword finds in her research for Air & Light & Time & Space, there are other ways of patterning your regular writing habits. We’ve talked about this on the blog, in Your Writing Starter, and Getting Back to Writing After a Break and Beyond “Binge” vs “Snack” Writing. Those posts used food as a metaphor, baking bread or feasting. Sometimes I use travel metaphors, like climbing a mountain or making a map or going up stairs or running a race or just running. In this post, I want to think about the difference between inspiration and breathing. After some practical thoughts about breath for productivity, and some personal reflection about ‘writing oxygen‘, this is an attempt to get to an underlying theory of writing as/like breathing.
Inspiration comes from outside of you. In Latin and Greek myths, writing inspiration was gifted to you by Apollo and his Muses. The Muses didn’t only cover artistic inspiration, but helped with study, memory, history and astronomy. You often had to beg or pray or make sacrifices to the Muses to get them to help. And it might cost you your life, or sanity, or bodily autonomy to be given it. Inspiration is violent and violating, as well as exhilarating and empowering.
You can’t choose to be inspired, but you can choose to take a breath in. And then a breath out. And then another breath in. Our lungs are the only major organ in the body that we can directly control with our minds. While your heart and guts can be indirectly impacted over a long period by meditation (see for example this study), and I’ve not yet seen any evidence that your thoughts impact your liver or kidneys, you can decide, at any moment, to take over your breathing. Breathe in long and slow, breathe out long, long and slow.
Or you can just trust your body to keep you breathing. Even when we are asleep, our body is able to take care of us, keeping us with the right balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Our lungs move, and our breath adjusts, as we move from sleep to waking, from rest to activity and back again.
Can we therefore start to think about writing as like breathing? Sometimes it’s a background activity that we ‘just’ do, regularly, keeping things moving along. Sometimes it’s something we practice and do intentionally, whether or not we are in the mood. And sometimes we are gifted with inspiration and it’s like flying.
Unlike the mythological inspiration, we are not reliant on capricious gods to give us the gift of insight and motivation. As researchers, we can build practices and environments that mean we provide our own inspiration. As Scott Barry Kaufman argues in ‘Why Inspiration Matters’
I think inspiration is best thought of as a surprising interaction between your current knowledge and the information you receive from the world. There are things you can do to increase the likelihood of inspiration occurring. Research shows quite clearly that preparation (“work mastery”) is a key ingredient.Scott Barry Kaufman
Build an inspiration practice for your writing. Perhaps you are inspired by meeting goals, in which case, spend time on your planning and productivity. Perhaps you are inspired by art or music or nature, so spend time building a playlist or setting up to write under a tree. Perhaps you are inspired by other people’s work, so spend time reading and listening and thinking (see this recent Twitter thread by Sandy O’Sullivan or this blog post by Raul Pacheco-Vega). Keep a list of ideas, thoughts, questions that come to you in a flash of insight so you always have a stash of inspiration for another day.
But don’t wait for inspiration. My favourite thing about running a regular Shut Up and Write is that I often turn up a complete mess. I don’t have a plan, can’t really do words, feel tired. I use the first writing block to sort out my inbox, drink my coffee, make a plan, the second one to try getting started, and by the third and fourth blocks, I’m actually productive and get work done (I wrote most of this post in a SUAW for example!)
I schedule in Shut Up and Write for the same reason I schedule in yoga classes–I don’t need them when I’m at one with my self and the world, I need them precisely when I’m all over the place. But because I have a practice, I know that intentional time putting one breath after another, one word after another, bringing my attention back to my breath, bringing my attention back to my document, that gets me where I need to go, where I need to be.
It doesn’t matter if you are inspired or just breathing. It does matter if you invest in a writing practice that sustains, enables and supports your progress. However you get there, go well, let’s write.
Much of this post is another way of saying what Liam Connell, Peta Freestone and I discuss in Your PhD Survival Guide. Much of it is another way of saying something I’m working towards as a new project. Thank you for coming with me on this journey, I hope these ways of thinking are generative and generous for you and your writing!