Dictionary.com defines Inspiration as: ‘an inspiring or animating action or influence,’ providing the eye-roll-worthy contextual example, I cannot write poetry without inspiration. Adding a little theological zest, it also describes inspiration, less exclusively, as: ‘a divine influence directly and immediately exerted upon the mind or soul.’ Both of these examples give an impression of inspiration existing outside of the individual, as if we were so many lightening rods trying to draw divine innovation down towards us. Sometimes, I’ll admit, writing IS like this. The writer becomes a conduit for something which seems to exist, fully-formed, outside of them. It is the most exhilarating and intoxicating type of writing, the one that feels truly effortless. Most of the time, though, the process of inspiration is more like panning for gold, fifty years after everyone has already exhausted the resource. You find just enough and make the best use of it, but its muddy and demoralizing work, that often feels like it’s harder than it has to be.
Perhaps ironically then, one of the most often asked questions to writers is: ‘Where do you get your inspiration from?’ And, maybe you’ve noticed or maybe you haven’t, but no writer can ever give you a straight answer, because there is no sacred truth. Half the time, we’re just as stumped about what inspired us as you are. Inspiration seems like it should be something which knocks you sideways where you stand, but the reality is, most of the time it doesn’t. And even when we do know what inspired us, the process of understanding that inspiration is irrationally complex. All we know is that inspiration is something we make happen, by being relentless in pursuing it. It exists as something internal, despite its definition, nestled at the heart of our deepest hopes, fears and dreams, and brought to life by our almost obsessive need to explore these.
What this means for anyone who wants to become a writer is that we all have the same potential to be inspired. And writers use many different techniques to kick-start the process and seek their gold in a river of mud, none of which involve standing around and waiting passively for it to strike.
All Roads Lead to Inspiration … at Some Point
- One undeniably favourite way to find inspiration, which many writers use, is to listen to music. Music is an expression of powerful, even transcendent, emotion, it captures existential sensations that even the best of us struggle to delineate. Music and writing both share an origin in storytelling, and it is no wonder that one can inspire the other. There is, however, a lot of debate about what specific type of music should be used, with some people stringently promoting classics such as Mozart and Beethoven, with others being more relaxed and eclectic. I think, as long as the song has emotion, and captures something you’re trying to say, then it’s the right song. Personally, I like instrumental music, and recommend production company Two Step From Hell for any necessary epic-ness in your novel or life.
- Another favourite way to find inspiration is to read/watch/consider things that inspire YOU, and take ideas from that starting point. In the twenty-first century we are forced to confront the reality that everything has been seen and said before, and the only option left to us is to say it differently. Which isn’t such a bad option, really. Take inspiration from writers you admire, from their ideas or their concepts, but never take their work; not even the twenty-first century is an excuse for plagiarism. Always make it different if you can’t make it unique. And if you are lucky enough to hit on something that hasn’t already been said, kudos, let the world hear it. Toni Morrison famously wrote her acclaimed novel Beloved because it was a story she desperately wanted to read which wasn’t already out there.
- One of the most bizarre and amusing ways to find inspiration is to go people watching. If every object tells a story then every human conversation/interaction tells a thousand. People are fascinating, quirky and unscripted; they are the best source of information for how a potential character may speak or conduct themselves. Don’t be intrusive, obviously, but allow yourself to absorb the lives and stories around you. If you hear a snatch of conversation as you pass someone, carry it on in your mind and see how it ends, watch people in love, and the nuances of body language, understand how and why people do things that they do. People watching is a pretty good habit to get into anyway because it doesn’t demand anything from you other than your attention. It’s portable and lightweight for your convenience, whether you want to use it in the centre of town or your local library.
- A fun and creative way to find inspiration is through scrapbooking or keeping a journal. No-one is ever going to judge you for your artistic ability, unless you want them to, of course, but writers are often encouraged to keep a notebook with them to jot down anything they encounter which piques their interest. Scrapbooking takes this to the next level. Read a newspaper article that intrigues you? Cut it out and stick it in. Found a piece of brilliant writing? Copy it out for future reference. Collect pictures of places and people until you have an entire database of things you can take inspiration from. One creative pursuit leads to another, and it’s a brilliant way to break the cycle of writer’s block.
- The final way noted here to find inspiration is through freewriting; a fancy name for putting pen to paper and just seeing what comes out. The advantage of freewriting is that you don’t pause, edit, or think, you just write and let it flow. It can help in warming up the writing muscles, as we say, or dig you out of a rut. Because it’s not linked to any project you’re pursuing, there is no necessity for it to achieve a golden standard, so you get to make your inner-critic a cup of coffee and sit him/her down in front of a crossword, which is always nice. Freewriting is, admittedly, a mixed bag; you might end up with a pile of rubbish, which is fine, or you might find something in there worth pursuing. Either way, all your doing is testing a means to an end. Even writers are allowed to be less than perfect.
There are, of course, many other ways to find inspiration, the five listed above are merely personal preference. They work for me, they might not for you. But even if they don’t, remember Thomas Edison once famously said: ‘Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,’ and writing is exactly the same. Nothing, not even inspiration, is a substitute for hard-work. That is the most earnest writer’s truth I know.