Inspiration vs. Motivation
Author’s note: this post is based, in part, on a chapter of my non-fiction book The Art of Reading: How Reading Can Make You a Better, More Productive Writer. This is not an excerpt, but if you want to read more, check out The Art of Reading on all major ebook retailers.
On the surface, inspiration and motivation might seem similar.
While they share some qualities, the two words are actually completely separate things, particularly when it comes to creativity. Inspiration is more big-picture…macro, if you will. Which makes motivation more laser-focused, micro in nature. This also means having one doesn’t necessarily mean you have the other.
Inspiration is the driving force that leads you to creating in the first place. A book you fell in love with, a movie that triggered something within you. Whatever unseen force sparked your creative fire and led you to a life of making things up — regardless of your medium of choice — is your inspiration.
Comic books are my inspiration; discovering superhero comics in middle school was the inciting incident that led to me becoming a writer. There have been other sources of inspiration over the years, but the first, everlasting stroke of inspiration came at the hands of Jim Lee and Chris Claremont.
Inspiration is lifelong and nebulous, and it can mean different things to you at different times. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton inspired me, but not in the I-want-to-write-a-musical or I-want-to-write-about-a-Founding-Father way. Instead, Hamilton inspired me to renew my creative efforts as a whole. Not just because Miranda himself is a prolific creator who almost always seems to have at least one iron in the proverbial fire, but also because the musical itself tackles the issue of productivity.
After all, Alexander Hamilton was, among other things, a writer.
The line “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” was key here — because frankly, I haven’t been writing like I’m running out of time, and it felt like Miranda was calling me out for it.
Let this be an example of inspiration hitting any time, from any source — even a piece of art from a genre or medium you’re not necessarily familiar with or a fan of. Plays aren’t my thing, and I don’t have a musical bone in my body, but every time I watch Hamilton or listen to Miranda speak, I’m inspired to grab my laptop and type away.
Which leads us to that pesky thing called motivation. If inspiration is the impetus for the overall desire to create, motivation is the day-to-day manifestation of that. It’s possible to be inspired, but not motivated — just as it’s possible to be motivated, but not inspired (i.e., “I want to write today, but what?”).
Think of it like this: if you wake up and decide you don’t want to do anything— like, say, go to work — you’re lacking motivation that day. Some days, I’m motivated to write. Others, I’m not. I’m still inspired, but for whatever reason, that particular day, I can’t be arsed to sit in front of the keyboard and peck away.
Some days, I wake up motivated to write. But real life gets in the way, and by the time I’ve taken care of my responsibilities, that motivation is gone. Replaced by exhaustion or frustration (or an ever-so-annoying combination of the two). I’m still inspired; I still want to create. It’s just not happening that day.
In my experience, inspiration is easier to come by than motivation. Maybe it’s simply a lack of discipline on my part, but I find I can’t simply conjure motivation out of thin air. If I’m not motivated that day, I’m not motivated, and trying to change that fact just makes things worse.
Inspiration, on the other hand, is everywhere. I’m inspired whenever I read a really good book (or sometimes, a really bad one). I’m inspired whenever one of my author friends completes a project or has a new release (I think E.A. Copen wrote and released a new book in the time it took me to write this blog post). I’m inspired whenever someone questions my creative bonafides.
I was even inspired when I was browsing the shelves at Barnes & Noble several years ago and saw a copy of Richard Castle’s Heat Wave sitting there. Because if a guy who doesn’t even exist can write and publish books in our world, then why can’t I?
(Never underestimate the inspirational and motivational power of incredulity and spite.)
When it comes to motivation, my only advice is two-fold:
- It’s okay to take days off if you’re not feeling it. Forcing it can make things worse, and there’s no hard and fast rule saying you have to write every single day.
- Think about what inspires you. Ask yourself why that inspiration still resonates, or if it doesn’t, examine why. Think about what else inspires you. Sometimes, taking a step back and questioning yourself will tell you all you need to know.
Creativity is a beautiful thing, but it’s not always easy. Understanding what inspiration and motivation are, how they relate to each other, and the role they both play in your creative life can make things so much easier for you.
Just remember to go easy on yourself if things aren’t flowing like they normally are; it doesn’t make you a failure and you’re not the only one struggling with it.