Inspiration is a funny animal.
Sometimes it’s everywhere, even showing up right when we can’t do anything with it, but all too often it’s an elusive sprite – hard to find and even harder to pin down. A lot of different writers (and creatives of all stripes) find it or deal with its absence in different ways, and today I want to take a moment to be a little more conversational than usual so I can talk about what I do when I can’t find my inspiration, where I go looking for it, and how I channel it when I’ve found it.
This is going to be a bit less of a “How I Suggest Doing It” (as some of my previous uploads have been) and more of a “How I Do It” kind of article, so remember that this is a personal approach and doesn’t necessarily reflect how I’d recommend you do it. Everyone has their own approach and it’s important that you find your own way of doing things.
Also, as a note, I’m not going to go in to “writer’s block” for this piece. It’s a much dreaded term that I have a few opinions on and will undoubtedly devote an article to in the future.
But onwards, to the meat of the topic!
We all get stuck when trying to come up with new ideas. It’s natural, it’s part of any creative pursuit. How do I make this character do this? How do I shape this story arc to make sense in the grand scheme of things? What do I do next?
I have two ways of tackling this when it happens to me (and it frequently does).
The first is to go over my own work, read what I’ve written so far and study my skeleton, my notes. Remotivate and remind myself what I have so far. That done, I talk to myself (literally and figuratively), to hear my own ideas. The conversation tends to include a lot of “why would they…”, “maybe if…”, and “would that work?”. With what I’ve written and planned out so far fresh in my mind, I try to answer the questions, try to address the points, see what I can change and what I absolutely need to keep. The process can be as motivating as it is inspiring, getting me excited about my own work again and fueling that creative engine.
Granted, should anyone actually witness this I do sound more than a little unhinged, but that’s an occupational hazard.
The second approach is to saturate myself in the things that inspire me, and I feel that deserves its own header, so:
What Inspires Me
There are writers who can draw their inspiration from long walks in the glory of nature or the urban crawl. Others who can just watch people pass from a park bench or sip coffee in a café and find ideas in the crowd around them. Unfortunately, perhaps, I’m not among them.
While I can write comfortably in a café (as I do at this very moment), I pay as little attention to my fellow patrons as I can and certainly draw no inspiration from their presence. Instead, I do my best to blot out their existence with what has always been my greatest source of afflatus: music.
I’ve often said that I don’t care what genre a piece of music falls under or who the artist is as long as the piece inspires me, and those of who follow me on Twitter (@KaedeVarr) have probably seen just how eclectic my music taste is as a result. My writing playlists – and I build at least one for every story I write – can include everything from Erik Satie’s “Gnossienne No. 3” (which has been my favourite piece of classical music for well over a decade) to Iron Maiden’s “Wicker Man” (arguably my favourite song from the famous metal band) to Massive Attack’s “Superpredators” (amazing for writing dark, suspenseful scenes), and just about everything in between.
I try to drown myself in as much of this as I can. I build new playlists, I crank up the volume, I ask myself if the lyrics or tones match my characters or story arcs and I wonder if I any of the songs give me ideas that could influence the story. Does a song almost fit a character? What parts don’t fit, and what if they did? What if something happens to the character to make it fit with the sung line?
The same approach could be taken with art, with movies and shows – surround yourself with whatever inspires you. Who knows? It might work the next time you get stuck.
I will, in the future, talk about how I soundtrack my stories and how I storyboard certain scenes like a music video, but that’s a “This Is My Design” article for another day.
Before I go on, I want to take a brief moment to add that if you want to really want to write, if you really want to be a writer, you cannot let a lack of inspiration stop you. Do what you have to, but keep writing. Feeling uninspired? Write. Having difficulty coming up with ideas? Write. Write things out of chronological sequence. Work on your skeleton. Brute force your way through a piece. Remember, you can always add or change things later – your first and foremost task is to write.
Channeling the Beast
When I’ve rediscovered my inspiration and I’m all abuzz, I need to make sure I put it to good use before it drifts away again or takes over completely and keeps me from doing whatever I actually need to be doing at any given time (a more rare but seductive danger).
The answer to both tends to be fairly simple: write it down. If I have the time I simply start writing or at least jot down the new ideas ideas down before they slip away. Every one of my stories has at least one accompanying document of notes (with larger projects it’s an entire notebook) that inevitably include pages of random scrawls – ideas, out-of-sequence scenes, little quotes, and so on. This is where the burst of creativity go before they lose their clarity in the arena of my mind.
Should I be unable to jot things down (I’m working on something else, I’m preoccupied with company, I’m at a Tool concert trying to keep my brain from exploding at just how amazing they are live), the way I handle it is to revisit the images in my mind as often as I can until I have a moment to write things down. I cling to the feelings, to the thoughts, I try to remind myself what made me think of it.
For me this has lead to some odd moments when I’m basically quite happy, but locked myself into a pseudo-sad mindset because I’m trying to hold on to scrap of tragedy I want to write. People get concerned but that’s yet another occupational hazard.
Sometimes inspiration just hits at the oddest moments, and while I carry a small notebook with me at all times just in case of such an occurrence I try not to just start writing in company. It’s a little on the rude side for those who aren’t particularly familiar with me, but fortunately family and friends have long since gotten used to it, though there are moments of awkwardness when I need to explain that I just decided exactly how a character was going to suffer and I absolutely had to write it down there and then.
But that’s just my approach, that is my design. Loud music, inspirational saturation, and small notebooks to tuck away about my person. I could go on for pages and pages about more specific details, and perhaps one day I will, but until then I leave you with the little rant you’ve just wandered through.
But what works for you? Tell us in the comments how you tackle inspiration or the lack thereof. To continue the referential theme: what is your design?
(Also, if you like progressive rock and you get the chance to see Tool live? Do it. Seriously, they’re amazing.)