Inspiration Is for Amateurs—The Rest of Us Just Show Up and Get To Work

Chuck Close? Stephen King? Philip Roth? Harvey Mackay? Mark Twain? Charles Schulz? Rosalyn Drexler? John Barkham? Nocona Burgess? Jill Elaine Hughes?

Dear Quote Investigator: An artist must wait patiently for inspiration to occur according to a romanticized depiction of creativity. Yet, a successful professional artist offered the following contrary viewpoint:

Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.

This notion has been attributed to acclaimed photorealist painter Chuck Close, popular horror writer Stephen King, Noble Prize-winning author Philip Roth, motivational columnist Harvey Mackay, and others. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In April 2006 Chuck Close was interviewed by fellow artist Joe Fig. The interview appeared in the 2009 book “Inside the Painter’s Studio”. The text below consists of a question posed by Fig followed by a reply from Close. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 2009, Inside the Painter’s Studio, Compiled by Joe Fig, Artist: Chuck Close, Date: April 25, 2006, Quote Page 42, Princeton Architectural Press, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Do you have a motto or creed that as an artist you live by?

Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will—through work—bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great “art idea.”

Interestingly, a character in a novel by Philip Roth employed a version of this saying while crediting Chuck Close. Also, Stephen King used a version while crediting Roth. Thus, the confusion about attribution is understandable. Details are presented further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1890 “The Evening Express” of Los Angeles, California printed an interview with Mark Twain who discussed his strategy for writing. He stated that he did not require inspiration:[ref] 1890 January 30, The Evening Express, Mark Twain’s Interview, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

“Do a little every day is my rule. Stick to it and you will find the pile of manuscript growing rapidly. If on reading it I find things I don’t like I simply tear up twenty or thirty pages and there is no harm done. Don’t be in a hurry to do too much, but work regularly.”

“Then you don’t wait for inspiration?”

“I don’t think the prose writer needs to. If he were to depend upon that support he’d have an inspiration—say once in three months—it would last forty-eight hours, and what would he have accomplished?”

In 1913 a newspaper in Kentucky printed a thematically related joke by the pseudonymous columnist Luke McLuke:[ref] 1913 October 1, The Adair County News, Luke McLuke Says, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Columbia, Kentucky. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

It is all right to sit down and wait for inspiration, but the rent collector doesn’t know what the word means.

In 1962 Charles Schulz, creator of the comic strip “Peanuts”, was interviewed in “Seventeen” magazine. Schulz expressed a viewpoint that was similar to the quotation under examination:[ref] 1962 January, Seventeen, Charles Schulz (Interview) by Lenore Smith, Start Page 77, Quote Page 103, Triangle Publications, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (ProQuest) [/ref]

“No,” he told me, “the inspiration for Peanuts doesn’t just pop into my head. I have to force it.” He pulled a pad toward him and began making marks on it. “I usually begin by doodling on a piece of paper.”

. . . he went on: “I haven’t time to sit and wait for inspiration because there’s just too much to do.”

In 1967 painter and playwright Rosalyn Drexler published “The Line of Least Existence, and Other Plays”. A detective character named Slovak in her play “Investigation” delivered a line that partially matched the quotation:[ref] 1967, The Line of Least Existence, and Other Plays by Rosalyn Drexler, Play: Investigation, Character: Slovak – A Detective, Quote Page 154, Random House, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

It takes time and care to polish an act, Joe. You’ve seen me come up from the ranks. I wouldn’t even say I need inspiration any more. No, inspiration is for amateurs—I work cool; I calculate my effects; I practice with the materials at hand; sometimes I improvise, but I never lose an audience.

In 1968 book reviewer John Barkham examined a work by Irving Wallace, and Barkham employed a partially matching statement:[ref] 1968 November 7, Wichita Falls Record News, Books In the News: Birth and Life of a Book by John Barkham, (Review of “The Writing of One Novel” by Irving Wallace), Quote Page 12C, Column 5 and 6, Wichita Falls, Texas. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Like most professional novelists, he keeps regular work hours (only the amateurs wait for “inspiration”) and his detailed work-charts are clear proof of the 482 days and 3,101 man-hours that went into the writing of “The Prize”.

In 2006 Chuck Close employed the quotation during an interview as mentioned previously.

Also, in 2006 Philip Roth published the novel “Everyman”. The main character discussed teaching a class about painting. The character attributed a version of the quotation to Close:[ref] 2006, Everyman by Philip Roth, Quote Page 82, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

He tried to be generous to them all, even the hopeless ones, usually those very ones who came in and said right off, “I had a great day—I feel inspired today.”

When finally he’d heard enough of that, he repeated to them something he vaguely remembered Chuck Close’s having said in an interview: amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.

In 2006 “The Sunday Telegraph” of London published an interview with Stephen King. He discussed overcoming alcoholism and drug addiction. In addition, he discussed the pleasures of writing:[ref] 2006 November 12, The Sunday Telegraph, SCARY fiction: Stephen King’s world is marked by obsession, disease and drugs, (Interview of Stephen King by Nigel Farndale), Quote Page 8, London, England. (ProQuest) [/ref]

‘Philip Roth has a great line in Everyman,’ he says. ‘Amateurs wait for inspiration, the rest of us get up every day and go to work. That is a good line in an uncharacteristically bad piece of work. Work is the clear channel I can go to.’

In 2007 an article in “The Santa Fe New Mexican” quoted artist Nocona Burgess who used the expression while disclaiming authorship:[ref] 2007 May 23, The Santa Fe New Mexican, Section: Native Treasures, Both sides now by Kay Lockridge, Quote Page 21, Column 1, Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

“I’m a pretty consistent painter in that I paint all the time, not just for shows or when the spirit moves me. As someone said, ‘Amateurs wait for inspiration; everyone else goes to work.’

In 2009 the “Chicago Tribune” of Illinois printed a piece in which writer Jill Elaine Hughes attributed the saying to Philip Roth:[ref] 2009 January 4, Chicago Tribune, 4 ways to find your muse by Louis R. Carlozo (Tribune Reporter), (Remarks from Jill Elaine Hughes), Section 9, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

“Philip Roth has a great saying, that amateurs wait for inspiration, while great writers just get up and go to work. You literally have to sit down and write every day, even if it’s not your job, and just force yourself to put the words down.”

Also, in 2009 columnist Jon Carroll writing in the “San Francisco Chronicle” credited Close with a slightly altered version of the saying:[ref] 2009 January 30, San Francisco Chronicle, Jon Carroll, Quote Page E2, Column 2 and 3, San Francisco, California. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

One of my favorite quotes is by the artist Chuck Close: “Amateurs wait for inspiration. The rest of us just get up and go to work.”

In 2010 syndicated columnist Harvey Mackay used a version of the saying without attribution:[ref] 2010 July 4, The Courier-Journal, You can develop that flash of creativity by Harvey Mackay, Quote Page D1, Column 2 and 3, Louisville, Kentucky. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

You can’t always sit around and wait for inspiration to strike. Amateurs wait for inspiration. The real pros get up and go to work. They understand that you are not born with creativity … and you have to continuously cultivate creativity.

In 2017 the syndicated “Celebrity Cipher” puzzle attributed an instance to Stephen King:[ref] 2017 September 3, Santa Maria Times, Celebrity Cipher Solution by Myles Mellor, Quote Page A2, Column 4, Santa Maria, California. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

CIPHER SOLUTION: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.” — Stephen King

In conclusion, Chuck Close deserves credit for the quotation under examination based on his 2006 interview. Similar quotations have been used by Stephen King and Philip Roth, but they both disclaimed credit. The notion underlying the quotation has a much longer history.

Image Notes: Illustration of several lightbulb icons from geralt at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Rob Rodgers whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

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