Feeling inspired?

When I started writing short stories, I fell in love with it right away because it allows you to explore genres and styles, and you can finish a story fairly quickly (especially if you compare it to my almost five-year anniversary with my novel). But when I’d written a handful of them, I experienced something I’ve never tried before – I had no clue what to write about. My mind was blank. I became really frustrated. There’s no limit; you can write about anything you want to, and you can’t think of a single story?
Inspiration’s a funny thing; once you got it, you can become completely absorbed in your work, writing page after page, creating the most amazing sentences and intriguing plots. But if it’s not there, writing can become an exhausting struggle. Every word that reaches the paper has to be dragged out of you, and they all feel wrong. What can you do to avoid this? Of course you can just wait for inspiration to descend upon you again. But if you really want to write, waiting for inspiration can feel about as frustrating as watching paint dry. So let’s try to help along your muse.
First of all, keep your eyes open. Inspiration can come from everywhere. As I mention on my website, inspiration for “Life Gave Me Lemons” came from getting an amazingly good lemonade at a bar in downtown Toronto. And for some reason, I got this image inside my head of an old hand squeezing a lemon till the juice ran over the hand and down the lower arm.
The award-winning novelist Colin McAdam tells how he got inspiration for his third book by watching nature shows on TV. He saw a female chimpanzee who had to cross a river, and as she stepped into the stream, she lifted her arms in a way any of us would do if we had to go into cold water and didn’t like the prospect. Mr. McAdams had an epiphany and realised that in essence, we’re all just beasts, and the thought inspired him to write “A beautiful truth” an award-winning novel.
Agatha Christie was once asked how she got ideas for all her intriguing characters, and her answer was “people watching.” She said sometimes when she was dining at a restaurant, sitting at the beach or in another public place, a particular person or even a group of people would catch her interest. She would study them for just a few minutes and without knowing anything more about them, she’d begin to imagine what they were like and how they would act in distress. The rest is history as the saying goes, world-known history.
Olive Senior, the Jamaican-Canadian writer uses postcards for inspiration. She has an inch-thick stack of postcards. On them is everything from staggering scenery to puzzling art, and she happily shares them with new writers with the question: “Which image inspires you? What story do you see?” A variation of this is visiting museums and galleries. These places burst with art meant to evoke emotion, and emotion is usually closely connected to inspiration.
Ms. Senior also frequently uses headlines from newspapers. Without reading the story behind the headlines, she’ll invent her own ones. “Police investigates death of five-month-old puppy,” was a curious headline I saw recently. Book titles can do the same. Usually great effort has been put into to finding just the right title that will catch people’s attention and tickle their curiosity. So take a stroll through your favorite books store or library, look at the titles and ask yourself as Ms. Senior would: “Which title inspires you? What story do you see?”
There’s also the images that will automatically make the brain spin with questions. We talked about a few images in the post “Telling Stories:” The unopened box on a doorstep, the loose board in a high fence, the old dusty attic with large trunks. These images are especially good for kid’s stories. If you want to write adult suspense fiction you might try meditating over an image of a car driving at high speed away from a burning building, or a man with a black eye, a bloodied shirt and a gun in a holster under his left arm, sitting alone in a bar at midnight.
Some lines will spur imagination too. “You’ll never believe what I witnessed last night…” “If I don’t tell someone soon, I’ll burst…” “Quick, take this to the Embassy. Say it’s from Mr. Soother. Tell them he didn’t make it…” “John had had the worst day of his life…”
The last thing I’ll mention here is actual writing exercises. Writing exercises can be used for everything connected to writing. If you don’t feel comfortable using dialogue, there’s exercises for that. If you’re inexperienced at making believable scenery, if you want to write faster or become better at showing instead of telling – there’s exercises for everything. And you can find a lot of them just by looking on-line. Most books about writing have some too.
I’d like to mention Stream of Consciousness in particular. A lot of readers will recognise this as a writing style made famous by authors as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Today it’s also used as a writing exercise and cherished by many writers. The idea in Stream of Consciousness (as an exercise) is that you write everything that pops into your head for ten – twenty minutes. No editing allowed, no stopping to consider word choices, you just write and write and write and don’t stop till your alarm clock tells you to. It’s an exercise that needs to be repeated often (ideally every day) to have its full effect. Writers use this method to become more focused in their writing, to overcome writer’s block, spur imagination, or even as a writing diary.
I hope some of these methods will help you to get the inspiration you need for continuing to write. Be aware when you’re out in the world, or at home in front of the screen. Make it a priority to never leave your home without something you can jot down ideas on. If or when inspiration hits you, take it seriously, explore it. Is it more than just a fleeting thought? Can it be developed into a story? Follow it even if you can’t make more of it right now. The worst thing that can happen is that it runs into the sand. Then save it for some other time.
After all this exploration into different ways of getting inspiration, I think it’s time to write a story. Next time there’ll be no advise, there’ll just be the joy of reading, because after all, what’s more inspiring than reading a good story?

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