Most people believe that time and imagination cannot be coordinated. A good idea seems to appear unexpectedly, on no schedule at all. And when an idea doesn’t come, we feel stagnated, desperate for a fresh breeze of insight that doesn’t come when we want it.
Then the pressure of a deadline—with time draining away—seems to kill any imaginative thoughts. Although for some a looming deadline forces you to pull something out of the hat: a rabbit—or a squirrel or a banana. At the last minute, anything will do—just make something come out of the hat.
George Bernard Shaw was once asked, as the story goes, if he only wrote when he was inspired. He answered, “Yes, and I make God damn sure I’m inspired every morning at 9 o’clock.”
The quote is also attributed to William Faulkner, Peter De Vries, Somerset Maugham, Raymond Chandler and just about anyone else who has tried to make a living by writing.
Inspiration is part of the job—the toolbox the writer brings to work.
But, is creativity on demand possible? Can the clock strike 9 and an empty mind fills with ideas—like loading coal onto a train.
Can imagination and inspiration operate on a British train schedule?
Inspiration comes from the Latin word for breathing in. At 9 am, you can be breathing in and indeed begin the circulation of ideas through your mind. At 9 am, you can begin channeling your imagination to the task at hand.
However, inspiration is not a guarantee of brilliance or even creativity. Moments of brilliance are few and far between. Inspiration—the motivation and desire to seek moments of brilliance—is always available.
None of the writers cited for this quote ever said “I have my best ideas at 9 am.” Rather, 9 am sets the start of focusing the imagination to generate ideas. Regular work habits can facilitate the imagination. The act of writing forces you to think about what you’re writing: through language you pull, tug and nibble on strands of thought. Your ideas stare back at you and, as you track down the strands you find new paths that you had never imagined.
For example, four paragraphs ago in this piece, I thought of the image of a clock striking 9 am on the dot, like a grandfather clock. Or a station clock. What fills up and leaves right at 9 precisely? Not American trains, but maybe British trains. (I expect that of the U.K.) That also led, sadly, to the unanticipated pun of a train of thought from a clock to a station and so on. (You don’t often hear people say the bus route of thought.)
Writing is a process of discovery. As is imagination. You can begin the process at any time, including a George-Bernard-Shaw 9 am.
Most likely, you do not follow Shaw’s 9 am dictate. But, observe how you begin your imaginative endeavors. Some writers begin with ritualistic procrastination: they clean every dish in the house before they start. And, then they take out the garbage. Some artists sharpen their pencils and then do it again. Some people have a full cup of coffee, 3 #2 pencils, and a legal pad by the computer.
Now, observe how work begins in other disciplines. The basketball game begins at 8 pm. But, at 7 pm the players come onto the court. They stretch, they dribble and they take shots. Practice balls go up to the hoop and bounce around the court. A player takes a step or two, grabs a ball and shoots. It seems effortless and undirected—quite unlike the intense directed effort in the game.
The players are warming up, shifting their bodies and minds from their day into their objectives for the game.
In their undirected shots, they are working with a basketball like doodling with a pencil. Think about how you doodle: your mind is half-distracted, half-attentive. You make a line without thinking, followed by another or several scratches in a row. At some point, you glance at your drawing, and see something in it. It could be a flower, a sail boat, a row of planets, geometrical design—anything at all, but nothing that you planned.
After a time of doodling on the basketball court, most teams organize drills—layups, passing and shots from designated spots. All of this is done to bring the mind and body up to game temperature—to be ready at the 8 pm game tip off.
If a basket player can be ready to play at full steam right at 8 pm, George Bernard Shaw (and you) can be ready to generate ideas at 9 am.
Find your warm up time: let your mind doodle for a bit. Draft random thoughts into practice sentences. Write down the first thoughts that come into your mind like you would doodle on a piece of paper. Give yourself a “team drill” like imagining everything a character has in her closet. Or, things she read in a college class.
Take yourself from aimless doodle to focused imagination. Some days you may focus quickly. Other days may take longer—who knows why? You are warming up to a performance of your imagination for an audience of only yourself. You can start and finish whenever you want.
You can even start right at nine a.m.