The statistics of inspiration

Recently, I read Moneyball, and was thus inducted into the great American pantheon of writers who are allowed to use sports metaphors in everyday life (other members: Aaron Sorkin, George Will, and a whole bunch of other center-right blowhards). In this book, Michael Lewis described how baseball statisticians discovered that the key to winning games was to get on base and the key to getting on base was to get walks and the key to getting walks was to know exactly when to swing and when not to swing. He describes how the Oakland A’s tried to drum the importance of not swinging into its players and how, when that failed, they went out and bought players who knew when not to swing.

It’s very hard for the players to not swing. A walk is a bit boring. Hitting the bat with the ball is exciting. All the incentives are aligned in favor of hitting the ball. The player who gets hits is a much-feted; the player who gets walks is just kind of dull. In order to not swing, a player needs to have a bone-deep, intuitive understanding of the statistical realities of the sport. They need to really understand, on some more-than-rational level, that if they don’t swing at marginal pitches then those extra walks will come and that those extra walks will mean extra runs and that those extra runs will mean extra wins.

And that seems like a pretty hard thing to do. The human brain isn’t good at understanding statistical realities like that. But, in order to be effective at anything, it needs to understand that any sustained endeavor is going to succeed or fail based primarily on the underlying statistics, and that the most it can do is try to alter those statistics a few points in its favor.


Which brings me to the analogy. Lately, I’ve been trying to gain an intuitive understanding of the statistics of inspiration. The classic model (at least in the SF world) is that inspiration doesn’t matter. It’s nice when it happens, but the rest of the time, you can just bull through and write anyway and it will turn out more or less fine.

I don’t subscribe to this model. I believe that writing is pretty much entirely inspiration. Ideas, stories, characters, phrases…they all appear out of the ether. The most that the rational mind can do is manipulate and distort and conjoin them in fairly predictable ways so that they fit together according to established narrative models. The essential goodness and newness seems, to me, to come from some unconscious place.

But the fact remains that you can’t (and won’t) feel inspired all the time. In fact, on 3 days out of 4, I have no inspiration. On these days, I listlessly churn through words and wait for my allotted writing time to end.

I think it’s important (for me) to write on uninspired days. Sometimes the inspiration descends upon you between one word and the next and I catch fire and then I’m on. And even when I don’t, I often explore words and ideas and situations that will someday become the raw material of future inspiration.

But I also think it’s important to not swing when an uninspired idea comes whizzing by. Because right now I am good enough that I can go through the motions in a very mechanical way and make a story out of pretty much anything. That story won’t be good and it probably won’t sell, but I can definitely do it. Someday, I’ll be good enough that even my rote, mechanical stories will be good enough to sell.

But what’s the point of that? I think it’s worthwhile to gain a conscious understanding of narrative models and character voice and all that other great stuff, but writing isn’t about finishing stories or producing words or even gaining acceptances…it’s about writing interesting fiction. I’ve lost faith in the notion that it’s possible to produce interesting fiction mechanically. To me, it seems like interesting fiction almost always requires the mediation of some kind of inspiration.

But then…well…what do you do on uninspired days?

I guess that’s kind of a hard one. I don’t think it’s right (at least for me) to only write when I feel like it. I think it’s worthwhile to sit down and force my unconscious mind to produce something (anything). But I also think it’s important for me to relax and not feel so much anxiety whenever the inspiration isn’t flowing. I need to realize that some days will be good days and some days will be bad, and that a certain ratio of good to bad is entirely expected. I need to at least pretend like I live in a generous universe, where the inspiration will always return, eventually.

Otherwise, that anxiety makes me thrash around and chase down and complete stories that are no good…just so I can feel like I’m doing something. And while that might sometimes feel good, I don’t think it serves me well in the long run.

Comments (



  1. Will Ludwigsen

    Have you listened to the TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert? She talks about this quite eloquently, offering that she shows up every day for her part of the deal and if the muse doesn’t show up, well, that’s the muse’s problem.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yes, I _love_ that TED talk. It made me really want to read Eat, Pray, Love.

  2. calvin

    I liked this piece very much (a great explanation of moneyball. thankyou!) I wanted to offer some suggestions to increase the likelihood of the “inspiration” experience.

    one is triggers. inspiration is like an itch, literally. you start feeling itchy and YOU MUST SCRATCH. you get an inspiring idea and you have to start writing. inspiration is an idea with an itch. therefore, put yourself in situations, think about things, which naturally will make you itchy. I’m going to guess that an itchy writing situation is a conflict; because, conflicts are itchy and need to be resolved (eg, start with the cliffhanger).

    recognize that inspiration very often starts with some small interesting thing, something you like, something that attracts you. I have a phrase, “be what you like; do what you like”. and like is used here in all it’s various connotations (identity, curiosity, attraction, affection etc). So start “working” with your like of the moment, whatever it is the excites you the most. The more I gin up the like factor, the clearer everything is, and the more inspiration flows. The trick with this one is DO NOT do things you don’t like… especially not for “moral” reasons!

    And if there is no like of the moment, I go lay down or pace around or go for a walk, or pull out the notebook and ask myself question. some question I would like to know the answer to. It doesn’t matter how outlandish the question is (I try asking myself a consistently difficult question to stay on track with long term problems). How, why, what. (I guess in fiction when and where would make sense too.)

    I know when I’m working mechanically it’s usually because I’m really not asking or dealing with the questions. Asking questions is my go to me in all situations.

    The methods above are useful. here is “the big idea”.

    Be in the space. (the fictional universe). I’m sure you get this. the richer the (fictional) space is, all the varied things that happen, the easier it is write. The space can pour out of you and give you a story. It is just ONE story from the space.

    As in a real life, the space has nested spaces inside it. Towns have streets, streets have houses, houses have rooms, rooms have furniture, furniture has draws and cracks, cracks have things inside them, those things come from somewhere, someone held those things. that someone went places, and met people. they thought things, different and the same things about each other. (the guy that made the couch where the kid lost his mini robot toy are related by a distant ancestor who…. who what?… )

    Start filling in all the sub-spaces in the space. This is a kind of writing exercise. Fill up the space describing all these things. this is not for publication, but for the space itself. Write about the space, for the space. The space itself is the audience. That has to be your motivation to write about the space. Somehow, writing to fill up this space, for the space itself, has magic power. After not very long, you will find lots of paths into the space, lots of things the space calls out to you to explain and fill up. It will start itching a lot. The space will naturally spawn out a story for outsiders, it will tell you.

    A space can be a person, an afternoon, a relationship, a planet, a spaceship, a wagon train, a universe, a town, even a moral or idea. I think big impossible spaces are much more fun than small, spaces, but small spaces can be incredibly large too, and good to start with when building up a large space. Take naps, think about the space as you lay there, fall into the space.

    this doesn’t mean I don’t believe in practice work. drills are damned important, but practice is a different kind of challenge than inspiration work. Naps and drills are another good way to clear away the distractions so the triggers of spaces and other itches pop out.

    oh yeah: go and read the book Impro

    do the exercises he describes in it. try wearing and inhabiting a mask when you write. It’s one of the most useful books I’ve ever read.

    I’m sorry this turned out so long, but meh. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about… how do you get a computer to have itches and to have inspiration? how do we do it?

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Wow, thanks for your long and interesting comment. It’s interesting to see your techniques for managing inspiration. I do things a little bit differently, but I’m certainly open to new ways of managing inspiration. Maybe I’ll look into the book you mentioned.

  3. Ben Godby

    Haha, great analogy! It’s interesting, that old wisdom of “just push through and your unconscious will do the work” is SORT of correct, but… I have definitely ditched a lot of stories that weren’t turning out right or that weren’t fun.

    Besides, if I relied on my unconscious TOO much, all my stories would be phallic metaphors and Oedipus complexes.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yes, I sometimes write and write and write and am like…there is something gripping but this…but there’s also something about this that is not really a story…

      Sometimes I really do need the conscious mind to come in and add structure to things.

  4. sunscald

    Fascinating discussion, and I also loved Gilbert’s TED talk–hadn’t seen that one before. Put me down as a second recc for Johnstone’s IMPRO, especially the chapter on masks. I read it for an improv class and then about twelve of us did group mask work. I’ll be damned if it didn’t produce that strange feeling of inspiration, of being half-possessed by something outside yourself, in a frightening number of us. First time I’d ever seen a group of improvisers leave class in complete silence.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Wow, that’s quite a recommendation…

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