Inspiration? Who Needs It!
‘Where do you get your inspiration?’ is a question guaranteed to stump and embarrass me. I immediately think of a lofty genius reclining on his or her Olympian height, while the Muse flutters about overhead, looking for a place to perch. That’s not me up there, and it’s not how I get my ideas (when I get them).
Most writers have a much more down-to-earth approach to their writing. Stephen King, for example, says this:
‘Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.’
Writer and publishing phenomenon Dan Poynter agrees:
‘If you wait for inspiration to write, you’re not a writer, you’re a waiter.’
I’m with my illustrious colleagues on this: ‘inspiration’ is an overused word that fails to cast much light on the business of creative writing.
I’ve read lots of advice on inspiration: what it is, where it is and how to get it. I’m told you have to formulate goals and objectives if you wish to be inspired; that you need to set aside time to plan and project; that you should make lists and diagrams so that your can track your ideas … Hell! I’m already tired just thinking about it.
I have a favourite quote from Graham Greene (it’s from his novel The End of the Affair, whose chief character is a novelist):
‘So much of a novelist’s writing … takes place in the unconscious: in those depths the last word is written before the first word appears on paper. We remember the details of our story, we do not invent them.’
Greene was writing in the days before personal computers and the Internet, but he still knew what he was talking about.
A great deal of creative writing is the result of hard work (‘perspiration not inspiration’) and the ability to process ideas without conscious awareness. That sounds a bit vague, I know. Yet I have frequently ended my day confused and lost as to what I should do with a particular piece of writing, only to awake the next morning with something like the solution planted in my head. It doesn’t always work like that (if only it did!), but I’ve learned enough in my writing career to remember not to panic when problems occur, for it’s finding solutions to problems that invariably results in my best writing.
But what about the daily grind of getting the words out there on paper (or laptop, in my case)?
The trouble with the idea of inspiration is that it makes it seem as if the writer is merely taking dictation from some other smarter person – a Muse or an invisible secret helper. And when that dictation breaks down – when the words don’t flow and we can’t think what to do next – then there begins a lot of loose talk about ‘writer’s block’. In my view, writer’s block is not the same as having no idea what to write on a particular day. Writer’s block refers more to authors who have dried up, played themselves out, and who may not have written for years.
Ideas for fiction writing can come from anywhere. If you’re stuck for an idea, try some of these writing tips – they’ve helped me:
What really sticks in your mind about your own past?
Maybe it’s a person, or a time in your life when you were especially happy or miserable, or when you made a huge error or a wonderful decision. Conversely, it could be an isolated memory – a snapshot of a time and a place – or the fragment of a feeling about a person or an incident.
We all have these things in our memories and we take them out time and again and look at them, throughout our lives. It’s possible that these memories need to be written about: if they keep recurring, the chances are there’s a lot of psychological pressure to express them creatively, perhaps even to exorcise them. They are the mountain peaks of our past experience. Ask yourself why they are mountain peaks. Soon, you’ll have the beginning of a story. That’s how I came to write my story Except Roper.
Take an aspect of your own daily life and think of something that could happen
Even the most boring, uneventful and habit-ridden life can become the source of good ideas. In fact, it’s the very things we do each day, unreflectingly and perhaps unwillingly, with a groan on our lips and a dried-up heart, that can yield our best ideas.
Here’s an example (this is a habit I enjoy, by the way, but it’s still done unreflectingly). Every morning, my greyhounds, Tony and Loulou, take me for a walk in the local memorial gardens. It’s a curious garden: formal, with fountains and a statue of Queen Victoria, and with lots of mature trees. It feels rather mysterious, but that could just be me. Nothing out of the ordinary has ever happened to me in this garden. But what if it did?
If I were a crime writer, I could imagine discovering a body in the early morning mist – or finding a gun and a stash of money, or witnessing an assault, or preventing an assault … the list is endless. If I wrote sci-fi or romance or horror, I could easily imagine all sorts of other things – Queen Vic’s statue sending a beam of radiation to a distant planet; a lovers’ meeting on a park bench; a malevolent creature emerging from the waters of the fountain … And that’s just one daily walk – if I start to think of everything else I do each day, then I’m spoiled for ideas. Try it. It works!
Be alert to other people’s good ideas and borrow them
There are no new plots. There are no new stories. Everything has been done already, long before we were even born. The only unique thing we bring to our writing is ourselves. Everything depends on character: our own and those we create. So we shouldn’t feel ashamed about borrowing other people’s good ideas. Shakespeare did it all the time, and if it’s good enough for him, it’s certainly good enough for us.
With me, it’s dialogue and pictures. I may be listening to someone speak or watching a film or reading a novel when, suddenly, a brilliant line of dialogue will grab me round the imagination and won’t let go. I occasionally use the line verbatim – if it’s from an obscure film made in the 1940s, not many people will notice – or else try to come up with something just as good. More importantly, I can use these wonderful ideas as the springboard to something of my own. Watching favourite films made in the 1970s, for instance, inspired me to write A Hundred Ways to Live.
So keep an eye out and an ear open for things you can borrow and you’ll be surprised at how many there are. If you need help remembering them all, carry a notebook around with you, but make sure you write legibly and in enough detail, or you won’t be able to reconstruct what it was that struck you in the first place.
It All Depends On You!
That’s right: it really does all depend on you.There’s no future in just waiting around to be inspired – anyone who does that will never write anything. You have the resources to inspire yourself – they’re all in your head, your heart, your life. All you have to do is reach out and grab hold.
Good luck and keep writing!