May 4, 2018
A writer's inspiration can be a tricky thing: when you have it, you may not notice it, but when you need it the most, it's hard to catch.
When we talk about inspiration for writing, we're really referring to two different stages in a process: the first is finding the ideas to write about and the other, which comes after, is getting motivated to write about these ideas. Here are some useful tips on how to get both kinds of inspiration, whether you're writing poetry, fiction, non-fiction or even a paper for class.
1. Read great writing. As a literature instructor, I find that a great way to find inspiring ideas for your writing is by reading great literature. J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor of medieval literature, and the three volumes of his "Lord of the Rings" are heavily influenced by the stories of the Middle Ages that he knew and studied. Tolkien reworked what he read into new novels that would become timeless. The author of "The Hunger Games," Suzanne Collins, has said that much of her inspiration for the novel came from Greek mythology. Reading great literature not only helps generate ideas but also has the side benefit of helping you hone your style.
2. Draw from what's around you. The more you live life and experience things, the more potential there is to encounter inspiring situations. Travel. Talk to people. Joan Smith, M.F.A, and lead faculty in creative writing, observes that "sometimes, inspiration comes out of nowhere. Lightning in a bottle. A song, a poem, something my kid says. In other words, we're often inspired by someone else's stories," whether they're in a book, a conversation or something you see. Even negative things can be inspiring. Spoken-word poets frequently comment on social injustices in their work. It can be cathartic to write about personal crisis or emotional trauma from the past. Draw on this inner well of experience and get it out on paper. It's a proven way to heal.
3. Be prepared. Because inspiration can happen at any time, I recommend carrying a small notebook with you everywhere you go. Keep it by your bedside since many great ideas come in the wee hours of the morning when you wake from a dream or when you're just about to go to sleep. These are the times when the brain works differently, free from cares, stress or distraction. (In fact, I am writing this paragraph at 5AM.) A notebook is also useful when you're commuting or walking in nature or eating lunch, and an idea hits you. Don't tell yourself you'll remember it and jot it down later; write it down immediately, before you forget. If you have a beautiful bit of dialogue or the perfect turn of phrase, capture it now. Sure, you can use your phone to do it, but it's more awkward to type on a tiny keyboard, and I like to have a special notebook just for writing.
Smith said, "When my well is empty, I start by asking questions of both extraordinary and ordinary events. I ask: What if? Why? What if marriage was all of a sudden outlawed? What if that woman and her dog out for a run find something unexpected? Why did that car pull over and park so strangely?" Questioning is a time-tested technique to get ideas flowing.
Candice Lee, winner of the SNHU Fall Fiction Competition in 2017, finds that writing about something that she likes and is familiar with kick starts her writing process. For example, if you know you really love love stories, this is your wheelhouse, and it'll be easier to conceive a romantic plot than to come up with material for a political thriller. When you're interested in the subject, inspiration comes more easily.
Above all, a key to success is not to expect that either inspiration or your writing will arrive magically and turn out perfect right away. This mindset is what author Anne Lamott terms "the fantasy of the uninitiated," something that those who write for a living know isn't true. To paraphrase Thomas Edison, the reality is that inspiration is only 1% of the process; the rest is perspiration. Write all your thoughts down diligently. Ask unusual questions. Find the time to write a little every day, so it becomes a habit. Ultimately you find inspiration; it doesn't find you.
Christopher Lee is the lead faculty for literature and has taught online at SNHU for 15 years. Lee holds a Ph.D in Comparative Literature and English from Columbia University with a specialty in medieval literature. In addition to doing literary research, Lee enjoys writing regularly about classic men's style.
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