Colson Whitehead (born in 1969) is the author of The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, both of which we won the Pulitzer Prize for!
Here are four of his wonderful quotes about writing to inspire you.
1. I was inspired to become a writer by horror movies and science fiction.
Inspiration can come from anywhere as a writer. Sometimes it’s one specific book you read as a child or one genre you’re exposed to early on that has a profound effect on you. And the inspiration can come from movies, too, of course. Many of us are watching movies before we even learn how to read, so that’s kind of our introduction to storytelling.
I read everything I could get my hands on as a kid, but I watched movies even more. And, like Whitehead, the genre that changed my life at a young age was horror. I loved R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books, and I was reading Stephen King by age ten. And my father introduced me to all the best horror movies, like Halloween, The Evil Dead, and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
When you start writing, you’ll likely emulate what you’re reading and watching, but at a certain point you have to take on a voice of your own. Colson Whitehead could have tried to be the next Stephen King his whole career or become a horror screenwriter, but he went in a different direction, one that worked out quite well for him. Just do you. Find the inspiration wherever you can find it and then take that inspiration into any direction you’d like.
2. Early on my career, I figured out that I just have to write the book I have to write at that moment. Whatever else is going on in the culture is just not that important. If you could get the culture to write your book, that would be great. But the culture can’t write your book.
It can be difficult as a writer to feel the pressure to write a certain kind of book every single time based on your culture or race or sexual orientation. Sure, these elements play an important role in the person you are, but if you force yourself to do something that you don’t feel comfortable with or that you don’t have a lot of passion for, that indifference will eventually come across in your writing, whether you do two drafts of the book or ten.
You have to believe in the story you’re telling. You need an overwhelming desire to put that story down on paper no matter what. You never really know if the story will work out or if it will be flat on the page, but you can rest well knowing you took on the book you had to write in that specific moment in your life. If it fails, it fails. Try something else, and see where that takes you.
Just do what you want to do every time out because, as Whitehead says, the culture itself can’t write your book. It’s all on you, my friend, so go with the story you’re excited about the most every time.
3. Usually, when I write a novel, it takes me about 100 pages to figure out the voice of the narrator.
Whether you have written one novel or twenty novels, starting a new writing project is never easy. Sure, if you have lots of experience in fiction writing, you come to the blank page with more confidence, especially if you’ve done your homework early on in coming up with your characters and at least a vague outline of what happens in your story. You want to spend a few weeks doing some prep work for your novel always. You never just want to start writing one random day and see where it goes.
But even if you’re extremely prepared, you’re not always going to get everything right in those first few chapters. It takes a week or two to find your groove. It takes a little bit of time to find the voice of your main character or narrator. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, that voice will come naturally early in the process, but don’t beat yourself up if it takes 100 pages or more to figure out that voice.
Always tell yourself if you’re struggling that you can come back to those first 100 pages at a later time and fix what parts of the voice aren’t working. When it comes to the first draft, keep going and don’t look back. It can take Colson Whitehead 100 pages to figure out the voice of the narrator… and the man has gone on to win two Pulitzer Prizes! So stay calm. Write another scene, another chapter. Keep the process moving forward, never backward.
4. You can’t rush inspiration.
I’m a big believer in writing all the time. Every day if you can. You want to practice, practice, practice. You want to get even just 250 words on the page and see where your latest story takes you. You want to experiment in short story writing and novel writing and screenwriting and poetry. You get better as a writer by working often and taking chances in new genres and mediums. And every day you want to have as much blissful fun as you can.
But at the same time, Colson Whitehead is absolutely right: you can’t rush inspiration. If there’s a story in your heart you’re desperate to write but for whatever reason, you don’t feel ready to begin, then don’t begin. You can hold onto that particular story for another few months, another few years even, and wait for the inspiration to come to you. I’ve had novel ideas I adored that I put off for years as I got better as a writer and allowed the inspiration to grow and grow. I’m still doing that for one particular novel I keep thinking about and yet continue put off year after year. You should feel free to do that, too.
If there’s something you believe in, don’t start it today just because you have a free month and the time to write it. If you think an extra few months or years will gain you the necessary inspiration you need, then by all means, wait. But what you don’t want to do is wait forever. You don’t want to spend the next five years thinking about a story and then never writing a word of it down.
You can’t rush inspiration, that’s absolutely true. But don’t wait so long for inspiration that the project never gets written. Find a happy place that rests somewhere in the middle. Wait as long as you need, but then get started when the inspiration has fully formed. And once that happens, it’s time to write your greatest novel yet!
PS Ready to be inspired? My newest craft book From Douglas Adams to Markus Zusak: Quotes by 100 Amazing Authors to Inspire Your Writing is now available on Amazon!