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On Kindling Inspiration

When I think about contemporary writers I admire — Melissa Febos, Alexander Chee, Carmen Maria Machado — it can sometimes feel as if closing the gap between my level of skill and theirs requires a kind of alchemy I don’t possess.

The idea that art is solely magic, though, does it a disservice. To gain mastery takes more than talent alone, whether you’re working on a book, an art installation, an aria, or a speech.

Melissa Febos is the critically-acclaimed author of three books: Whip Smart, Abandon Me and Girlhood (forthcoming) about “the narratives women are told about what it means to be female and what it takes to free oneself from them.” She is the inaugural winner of the Jeanne Córdova Nonfiction Award from LAMBDA Literary and her work has appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times, The New York Book Review, Elle and Vogue, to name a few.

Together, we talked about the essential skills that lead us to excellence.

So, how would you say that you as a writer, or anybody for that matter, cultivates persistence?

When we’re younger we overvalue talent and undervalue tenacity, because even with very little talent, the persistence will get you actually quite far. No amount of talent will suffice if you don’t have persistence. Ideally one has both.

I did reach this moment of reckoning. It was near the end of undergrad and I thought, “Oh. This is really hard. To be doing this at a high level the way that I want to, I’m going to have to do it a lot.” Left to my own whims, that will never happen.

It really requires a certain focused attention that we resist because it’s hard, and it’s not what we do intuitively. We have to really train ourselves to do it.

What incentivizes persistence?

I think for us to do something, to really walk towards something incredibly challenging and difficult, and that we’re maybe not yet skilled enough to feel mastery at, there has to be an incentive that isn’t necessarily money or the approval of others. There has to be a personal investment, otherwise it’s not sustainable over the long term.

It has to mean something to me independent of that, which means in terms of spirituality, community, connection with other people, and writing hits all of those marks for me.

What role does inspiration play in creating masterful work?

It doesn’t just spring up out of nowhere. I mean, most people don’t believe that. You have to go collect your kindling, and start your fire, and build it, and create the space for this magical thing to happen.

Creativity is a cultivated kind of magic.

There is some inexplicable miraculous aspect to it, but you have to create a hospitable environment for it to arrive.

Multiple days per week I sit down and just engage. Even if that means reading over something else, forcing it when it doesn’t quite feel natural, reading something that gets my gears turning.

It’s easier to keep a fire burning than it is to wait for it to go out and start another one.

What happens if the fire goes out?

As a person who is very into being functional — I’m a long-distance runner and a bit of a workaholic — I always want to force it. I want to treat my body and my mind like a system that I have control over that I can demand things from, and that’s just not how it works.

It can’t be all output.

Inevitably when I’ve tried to force the work and it doesn’t come and I get stuck, it’s often because I haven’t given myself the freedom to explore, and absorb, and ruminate, and have ideas.

Just that curiosity, that sense of trying things and being interested. It’s been really revelatory for me to understand that I can cultivate that.

As you look over the trajectory of your career that’s still growing, how did you work to develop patience within yourself?

It was really through trial and error, and also through community. Having other writers, other people with the same goals as me who are doing the same thing and commiserating, picking each other up off the floor, collaborating, sharing things we’d learned.

I am rewarded when I slow down the pace and really do my best. My quickest work does not get me what I want. My best work does, and my best work takes a lot longer.

What gives you hope?

What I think is going to happen or needs to happen is frequently wrong. I’m frequently wrong. So, that gives me a lot of hope, that I have been surprised and I have faced the unexpected over, and over, and over again. I think my own powerlessness is a comfort in that way.

I do believe that more is possible than I can see at any given moment.

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