I never know what book I’m going to write next, not really. I can plan and schedule and figure out how many words I need to write on this or that project by this or that date, but when it comes down to it, I never know which path my inspiration will take me. It doesn’t obey schedules or deadlines.

It’s a fickle thing—inspiration. Lofty and intangibly vague. This ineffable source of creativity that may or may not show up when I need it. Sometimes, it comes in an infrequent trickle, slowly revealing the bits and pieces of the story I want to write. Other times, it comes in an inexhaustible deluge, pouring into my brain faster than I can write it down. It’s coy and demanding and rarely behaves itself, giving me story ideas for books I don’t have time to write and being persistently silent when I’m on a deadline and need to figure out how to fix this final chapter.

I used to think that inspiration was what you made of it, that I could tame it, wrangle it out of thin air, and put it to work when needed, that if I only sat down to write, the inspiration would come because I was ready for it. Writers write, and all that. And it worked, for a time.

During that time, I thought that all it took to write a book was an unwillingness to give up, that if I sat down every day and did the work, eventually I would have a book to show for it. I didn’t have to be inspired. I would just create my own inspiration; I could force a book out of me if only I tried hard enough. And on the surface, it seemed to work. I dutifully wrote three novels and a novella adhering to that daily dose of unflappable persistence. I sat down. I did the work. And I wrote the book. With my latest, I hated the damn thing by the time I was finally done, but there it was—a finished, polished, published book. A good book. Hands down the best thing I’ve written to date.

But at what cost?

I tapped the well to exhaustion, draining every last ounce of inspiration out of the recesses of my brain without ever pausing long enough to refill it. And eventually, the daily grind I depended on for so long to keep the words flowing, forcing myself to keep going even when I hated every single word I put on the page… it failed me. I miraculously managed to complete the novel I was working on, but as soon as I turned the final draft over to my publisher, the creative part of my brain checked out, shut down. It barred the gates and turned out the lights. Not even stray tumbleweeds dared to roll past those vacant windows.

In my determination to write a book with or without the inspiration to do it, I sucked the joy out of my own writing. I drained my creativity to the point that I had nothing left.

And my inspiration abandoned me.

How do you write a book without inspiration? How do you look at a blank page and see the beginnings of a story when your brain feels like a wad of soggy lint?

Easy answer: you don’t.

You find every excuse you can think of to avoid writing, because facing that emptiness where there used to be ideas is more terrifying than anything else. Not knowing where to start a story is one thing. At least you have a story idea in your head; all you need are the right details. But looking at the blank page and finding your brain a grimy reflection of that immaculate white sheet and knowing that you have absolutely nothing to write, not even the stray hint of an idea to get you started in some direction—even if it’s the wrong one—there is nothing so terrifying as that.

No matter how hard I tried to force it, there was nothing there.

And as a writer who has predicated her sole purpose for existing on the ability to create stories… that’s some existential crisis shit right there.

Suddenly, I had this gap in my life, a void where ideas used to be, and I did what I could to fill it. I clung to my old ways. I tried to force inspiration where there was none. I tried to brainstorm a new story. I tried to think about that editing project I’ve been needing to tackle for years now. I tried to piece together a plot for the next chapter of another story I’d been working on. But the creativity was gone. The inspiration was gone. I had nothing more to give.

So, only half-willingly, I took a break.

I read books. I played games. I watched TV and movies and listened to music and tried not to think about that terrifying blank space in my brain that used to be full of color. I tried not to think about the fact that my mind was empty when it used to be full of noise. I tried not to think about all the stories I still wanted to write but couldn’t for the life of me seem to formulate even the slightest hint of an idea for any of them.

I wrote blog posts for my book release and filled my time with promo and marketing and emails. I went to a convention and talked about writing and pretended that I was a professional author who knew what was what and had it all figured out while inside I felt like the least qualified person in the room to be talking about writing. I hadn’t written a word in months.

Every day, I was reminded again of that blank void in my head, and every day I tried to ignore it.

Surely there was something more I could be doing. Surely I could make my inspiration come back. I mean, I wrote a book fueled by nothing more than sheer determination of will. If only I tried harder, the stories would come again.

But you can’t write a book with nothing more than will and persistence, and you can’t write a book without inspiration. You can’t force creativity. There’s danger in waiting for the muse, but there’s danger in chasing her too. Eventually, you run out of breath.

There is a big difference between that lightning-strike sort of inspiration that hits you out of nowhere and grants you that eureka moment of epiphany and the kind of sustained inspiration that you nurture day to day in order to keep yourself motivated and invested in the story. Writing a book requires both, I think—inspiration to get you started, to give you something to be excited about, and the less attractive inspiration it takes to sit down and write even when it’s hard.

Somewhere along the way, I came to think that all I needed was the latter, that if I waited for that lightning-strike kind of inspiration to get me excited to sit down and write, then I was a lesser writer. That sort of inspiration was beneath me. I was a professional now, and that meant doing the work, not waiting for some moment of epiphany to make the writing easier. And if the epiphany came while I was writing, it was only because I was already doing the work and I was making my own inspiration, not relying on the whims of some mercurial muse. Writing was work, damn it, and I was determined to make sure it felt like work, because that made me a Real Writer™.

It was only after the agonizing process of writing and editing The Guild Conspiracy that I realized how unsustainable that is.

The realization has been painful. The relentless daily grind has been a part of my process for so long that I feel like a failure when I can’t step up to the plate and deliver that steady stream of inspiration-on-demand like I used to. I’m finding it hard to accept that I just can’t write like that anymore, as much as I know that it’s true.

But I’m trying.

I’m absorbing. I’m reading, watching, listening, waiting, refilling the desolate void that The Guild Conspiracy left in its wake. I’m waiting to see which way my inspiration takes me instead of forcing it down the path I think it needs to go. I’m writing down ideas when they come to me. I do something else when the air around me is silent. I write when the words flow, and I step away when they don’t.

It’s hard. But it’s necessary, I think. I’m finally learning to be patient with myself. I’m learning to trust the process, even when I can’t see where it’s going to lead me. I’m learning that it’s okay to step away from the work for a while and fill my time doing other things.

I don’t always have to be writing.

I’m still a writer, still a storyteller. I still have ideas in my head, stories I need to tell like I need to breathe, but they can wait—I can wait—until they are ready to be told… and told at their own pace, not one I’ve forced upon them.

I can wait.

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