The search for inspiration is part of a writer’s life. Just like any other creative person, sometimes the fresh ideas flow freely, while at other times it seems like we’ve used up all the inspiration we’re going to get for this lifetime.
But just how does inspiration work? According to the late, great Terry Pratchett:
“Little particles of inspiration sleet through the universe all the time traveling through the densest matter in the same way that a neutrino passes through a candy-floss haystack, and most of them miss.”
Imagine, if you will, that perfect moment of inspiration for your next novel missing your brain by millimeters. Perhaps it lands squarely in the brain of a passing crow – who is not much in the position to write a bestselling novel. Tragic.
As you would expect, Terry is being a little bit flippant here – but it’s a valiant effort at illustrating the frustratingly random nature of inspiration. One of the questions authors most commonly face is where do you get your ideas from? The unspoken question that comes along with that is where can I get these great ideas and become as successful as you?
In fact, Neil Gaiman once got so fed up with people asking this question he wrote a short essay on it. You can read the whole thing by clicking here – but for the sake of brevity right now, we’ll pick a single quote:
“I tell people the truth: ‘I make them up,’ I tell them. ‘Out of my head.’ People don’t like this answer. I don’t know why not.”
There are some writers who find conjuring new ideas as easy as breathing. There are others who find it an almost impossible challenge – but most of us will tend to sway back and forth, enduring periods of time where we’re stuck for things to write about. This is often referred to as suffering from writer’s block, but lack of inspiration isn’t something you can tackle like most other medically-defined ailments.
Inspiration is a different kind of beast, and here is what a few authors think about it:
“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”
“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”
Tips to Court Inspiration
Okay – so you get it. The sum experience from published authors is that you should write and see what happens. But what if they’re some special breed? What if they are the few who never have to struggle for new ideas? The truth is that inspiration is all around us – some just pick up on it more easily.
Here are a few things you can do when you’re stuck for inspiration.
1. Get a notebook. Take it everywhere with you. There’s no worse feeling for a writer than having a great idea but forgetting it before you can get it down. Don’t just trust your electronic devices; get a notebook, a pencil, and bring them everywhere – even to bed, for those moments where you snap awake in the early hours with a fully formed story ringing in your head.
2. Get outside and walk. Moving our bodies lets our minds wander.
3. Observe. Watch people – but not too closely or you might have the cops called on you! Find a crowded place, sit with a coffee, and see how people behave. Think about what sort of people they are, and what the stories behind snippets of overheard conversation might be.
4. Question everything. When an event unfolds in front you, imagine it going in a totally different direction. What if …… happened? How would people react? Why? What would it mean to them, their world, and the world at large?
5. Let yourself daydream. Instead of staring at a screen and trying to force the magic to happen, give yourself time to relax and let your unconscious mind take over. You might just surprise yourself with a vivid idea.
6. Try new experiences. Seek out exotic foods, go to new places, step outside your comfort zone and have a small adventure. Novel experiences have a way of kickstarting our brains and fueling the curiosity and enthusiasm that leads to creativity.
It might feel tempting to abandon some ideas simply because they don’t arrive fully formed – one isolated scene isn’t likely to make a complete story, after all. But you’d be wise to keep every spark noted in a collection of ideas. Keep them safe and add to them when something new comes along. Sooner or later you may be able to combine them and form a launchpad for a whole new novel.
But in the end, inspiration is not the most challenging part of writing – because an idea itself is not a novel. You need to take that first spark of inspiration and kindle it into something amazing. That’s where the real work awaits.
To cap off this musing, let’s give the final word to Mr. Gaiman:
“Words aren’t going to wait for you whether you’re inspired or not. You have to write when you’re not inspired. And you have to write the scenes that don’t inspire you.”
The alternative is to do nothing at all – to wait for the perfect lightning strike, and ignore those smaller particles of inspiration in favor of a comet that may never arrive. In creative fields, that’s an option that doesn’t bear thinking about.
So get out there, drum up some inspiration, and get writing. Your next stories are waiting for you everywhere!
What are your thoughts when it comes to inspiration? Do you believe writer’s block can be easily overcome? What do you do when the light bulb just won’t come on? Share all your thoughts and tips in the comments below.