“Amateurs look for inspiration. The rest of us get up and go to work.”
Chuck is a highly respected painter and photographer. I have his statement tacked up on the wall in my office, because it really grabbed me when I first came across it. And over and over again, recently, I’ve been reminded of how true this is based on the experience and comments of accomplished artists in a range of fields.
A biography of Stephen Sondheim by Meryle Secrest, for example, highlighted one of his professor’s beliefs in this way: “Instead of waiting for inspiration, Barrow taught that music is a matter of craft and technique like, as it turns out, all art, and the fact that art is work and not inspiration, that invention comes with craft.”
Mmmm…there are definitely some ideas worth pondering here. The good news is that we don’t need to sit around waiting to be inspired, we simply need to get to work: to bend our time and energies to developing our craft and technique. The bad news: art is work. It requires discipline, effort, sacrifice, and a consistent investment of intention and attention. At first glance, this seems to strip away some of the mystery of the artistic process, doesn’t it? And yet, we have that redeeming thought: “invention comes with craft.”
Craft is the open sesame: it’s the door to invention and inspiration. In order to find and mine invention, there’s one path we have to follow: we have to sharpen our writing skills, hone our craft. And that means focused, consistent practice.
For some writers, that means devoting an intense few hours every day to their writing and then leaving their desk and letting their unconscious mind kick in. For many others, it means taking a businesslike approach to their calling.
Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim’s mentor, has written some of the most beloved lyrics in musical theater: songs as inventive and moving as any around. He achieved his success and his lighthearted touch by taking his writing seriously and treating it like any other demanding job. He worked from 8:30 to 4:30, with a break for lunch. Sometimes it took him being at his desk day after day for three weeks to come up with a single song that might have a hatful of words. Ah, but what words! While we can’t know how often inspiration struck Oscar, here’s one thing we know for sure. When it came, he was likely to be found at his desk, ready to grab it.
Whatever mode of working we adopt, it’s commitment that counts. Let’s put in the time required, on the page and off it, to master our craft. Write on.