The Writing Parent – Inspiration: The Myths and The Magic

Column by Vanessa Shields

I know there are many of us who are writers and parents. This is a wild duality to live. My intention with this column is to write about the challenges of being a parent and a writer. I aim to share stories that reflect both the difficult and the extraordinary experiences of striving to balance the creative and the caregiving mind, body and spirit. Find an archive of the Writing Parent columns here.

I remember being twelve, exploding with inspiration and diving into my journal to write about everything from nature to crushes to school to books. I remember believing that I needed to be inspired to write. And at that age, I was easily inspired. By people, by art, by books and the writers who wrote them. A sunny day or the smell of dirt after it rained – it seemed that breathing could bring inspiration!

I remember talking about it like it was the thing that made a writer a writer – having the ability to be inspired constantly and to write with this magical energy. And my teachers seemed to agree. I had some incredible teachers – in all the subjects – and I thought them passengers on this inspiration boat, too. Everyone was on board about inspiration being this great power that was abundant in its availability. We all agreed that inspiration is what fuelled the masters in fields from athletics to arts to arithmetic. I will admit that I was rarely inspired during Math, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t see it happening around me. I held on to the belief that inspiration was a necessity for my creative writing steadfastly – until I got to university.

Suddenly, I felt an independence that shifted my belief from a simple abundance of inspiration to a quiet panic and freedom with Time that was terrifying. High school was very regimented. Daily schedules were set for me. I thrived on being told what to do and the fact that the teachers paid attention to what I was doing. The constant attention and validation helped me feel ‘good enough’, and that extended into my creative life. Also, I took everything super seriously…which landed me in two breakdown situations by the time I graduated from OAC (grade thirteen – remember that?). In any case, the shift in daily schedule and with my teachers (who were called ‘professors’ and told me their first names #weird) at university ultimately forced a shift in my relationship to time. What I mean is that I had to put time-management first and hope that inspiration would work its magic at 2 am in the morning when I finally sat down to write the paper that was due the next afternoon.

“Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop and approach for the rest of the time.” Leonard Bernstein

It took me four years to figure out how to be a successful student in university – to teach myself how to stop panicking and start doing the work when I found out about it. I tell you it was a revelation when I figured out that I could hand a paper in early if I wanted to. Like, if I had three papers due and an exam on the same day – I could hand the papers in early and give myself time to study for the exam. Of course now it’s obvious, but as I lived it, it wasn’t. I was fuelled by worry, panic and fear that I would not be able to get it all done and get it done well.

A funny thing happened with inspiration. It got pushed to my social life. I would skip my night classes and go to the Windsor Film Theatre to watch foreign films about the tango or hit The Loop, the best dive bar in the city, and dance for hours – letting the music inspire the tension out of my body. Inspiration became simply a way to feel that didn’t motivate anything but a peace I couldn’t find in the classrooms, labs or libraries of university life. Yes, I still wrote poetry and versions of screenplays that helped me feel connected to my craft, but my craft wasn’t something I had much energy to pursue. My need to be inspired to write seemed to hover over me. Waiting, maybe.

Then I got hired as the Arts Editor at The Lance, the university’s newspaper. I got an office! I got tickets to every arts event in the city! I got free CDs! I was paid to write about the arts. I learned the joy of writing to deadline – a deadline that I didn’t fear but saw dangling just ahead of me in the wee hours of the morning – and it was being held by inspiration.

By the time I graduated university, getting my four-year degree in just under five years (hey, take your time, I tell you, take your time!), I had a new relationship with inspiration. One that had matured. One that had redefined its place and power in my daily life and writing processes. Inspiration was still alive and an integral part of my writing life…but it was different. I didn’t depend on it to get the writing done like I had when I was a child.

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” Stephen King

I had taught myself how to ‘get up and go to work’ without needing inspiration to get me there.

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I asked my kids about inspiration. Here’s how our conversations went.

Me: What does inspiration mean?

My daughter Miller (she’s 10): If there’s someone you really like and he/she does something, you can be or do that too. If you like someone’s poetry, you do it and then you feel inspired.

Me: Do you ever feel inspired?

Miller: (She leans into my neck for a hug.) You inspire me.

Me: (Tears immediately well in my eyes.) How do I inspire you?

Miller: Being a mother.

Me: Anything else?

Miller: No, I’m hungry.

Although our conversation was short and very sweet, it was also profound. People – what they do, how they do it – inspire my daughter. She got very serious during our little chat. And a bit shy too. Inspiration grows deep within her and blossoms in her art. It shows up differently than it does in my son.

Me: What does inspiration mean?

Jett (he’s twelve and loves movies and comics): Something that gives you ideas. Something that lifts you to greater heights in your plans in life.

Me: What inspires you?

Jett: Anything on Netflix. Anything in a comic store.

Me: Anything else?

Jett: My mom and my dad.

Me: Why?

Jett: They inspire me because they do what I want to do when I grow up.

Me: How does it feel? Being inspired?

Jett: Exciting.

Me: Have you ever felt inspiration?

Jett: When I watched The Goonies for the first time. Guardians of the Galaxy…and Ferris Bueller.

Me: Why?

Jett: Because it was like I wanted to be them. I thought that I could make movies like that and I could make people feel like they want to be those characters.

It’s clear that my son has a future in the film and/or comic industry! And, I can see how inspired he gets when he watches films. He can talk movies and comics like he’s on a podcast. His inspiration is vocal and energetic.

I asked my kids about inspiration because they are the ages (10-12) when I really started to feel inspired. Maybe I couldn’t define it perfectly or maybe it was just beginning to exist in a form that I could talk about, but it was real and alive in me as a child. I want my kids to know who/what inspires them. I want my kids to believe in the power of an energy that ‘lifts you to greater heights in your plans in life.’ Inspiration wants a home in our bodies – in our minds and hearts and souls. And it wants to move in when we’re children. It’s an energy that protects and supports our inner selves when maybe people and things in our outer lives can’t do it for us.

I think that as inspiration has shifted from a desperate necessity to a welcomed guest in the office of my soul, I’ve taught myself how to write because writing is the need I must attend to – not the need to feel inspired in order to begin.

“When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’” Maya Angelou

Now I know that inspiration is part of the writing process, but it is not necessary to begin or motivate. It changes faces and sounds and shapes to fit the words. But, I also believe that it was my childhood belief in inspiration that build the foundation of my writing practice. It is what held me safely as I learned to navigate my passion for writing, and it pushed me to do things I loved like reading and dancing to keep the passion alive.

I feel I am my best self when I’m writing. I feel that way when I’m mothering and teaching too, but the writing…I need it in order to breathe freely. I couldn’t have figured out how to hone my craft without inspiration’s presence.

What is your relationship with inspiration? I hope that it fills you up when you need it. I hope it comes when you need it most. But I also hope you know you can sit down and write without it.

Vanessa writes in the in-betweens of a busy life as a parent, producer, photographer and poet. (That’s a lot of Ps!) She lives in Windsor with her hubby and two kids, Jett and Miller. Her first book of poetry, I Am That Woman (Black Moss Press) was published in 2014. Her book Look at Her (Black Moss Press) was released in the fall of 2016. Shields created and hosts a storytelling series called Mouth Piece Storytelling. Vanessa is the owner of Gertrude’s Writing Room – A Gathering Place for Writers. For all things Vanessa, visit her website: www.vanessashields.com.