In one of my favorite interviews, Jean Stein (for the Paris Review) asks William Faulkner a series of rapid fire questions. In the middle of the flow of conversation, she says:
“You mentioned experience, observation, and imagination as being important for the writer. Would you include inspiration?”
Faulkner, never missing a beat, responds:
I don’t know anything about inspiration because I don’t know what inspiration is—I’ve heard about it, but I never saw it.
I absolutely love his response. As one of the titans of modern literature, Faulkner never calls upon inspiration as a a source. He adamantly refuses to believe that inspiration even exists.
He’s also known for having said:
I write only when I’m inspired. Fortunately I’m inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.
For Faulkner, inspiration was never a reason for writing or for not writing. He approached it as a discipline, a skill to be honed. It was never a matter of feeling the urge to write. Writing was a way of life.
A week ago I was able to revisit one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Tennessee, Cummins Falls. There are several plateaus that terrace downward to a pool below the falls just before the water spins out into the Blackburn Fork State Scenic River. At 75 feet, Cummins Falls is an impressive sight. But, it’s not always the largest figures that demand the most attention.
These shallow shelves of water below the falls were full of fish: tiny minnow-esque creatures that drifted in nebulous schools, merging and dissipating in furtive motions.
And, no matter what came their way, they remained on their small, waterfall shelves. Simple, shallow grounds, but they could not be pushed on.
There is no key to writing, but there’s something to be said for persistency. Sitting down every day with a cup of coffee next to a portable heater for warmth and just starting.
Hemingway said, “Work every day. No matter what has happened the day or night before, get up and bite on the nail.”
Perhaps he meant that there are those who claim their 10×10 shelf of water below the falls before moving on to the next one. And when they move on, they move to swim.