Sometimes it comes easily. The words flow and the paragraphs and plot lock together with smooth and powerful precision like girders in a swiftly-built tower.
‘A Woman Reading’ by Camille Corot (c.1869)
Other times (most times), it’s a struggle to get even a good page done after a full day spent at the writing desk. That’s where inspiration comes in.
But where do you find it when it goes hiding? Usually, you can’t wait, you have to just keep plowing ahead.
In a long, sprawling piece for the New York Review of Books called “Inspiration and Obsession,” Joyce Carol Oates describes how what can seem casual and inspired is really the result of hard labor:
[Emily] Dickinson’s poems, and her letters as well, which seem so airy and fluent, give the impression of being dashed off; in fact, Dickinson composed very carefully, sometimes keeping her characteristically enigmatic lines and images for years before using them in a poem or in a letter.
Sometimes it can help to simply look to one’s own life. That of course can lead to too much of the bildungsroman we see in modern fiction (one of the reasons we see so many wealthy, educated characters and so few poor, unless it’s crime fiction). But sometimes it can open the spigot; Oates calls it being “a time traveler” in your own life. She quotes Virginia Woolf, who found great success this way:
I am now writing as fast & freely as I have written in the whole of my life; more so—20 times more so—than any novel yet. I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; & that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there…. The truth is, one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes: but look [elsewhere] & the soul slips in.
So there’s one road to inspiration, when all else fails. Look at your own life, but from an angle.