How to Find Writing Inspiration (When You’re Not Feeling Inspired).
by Jaime Libowitz
Ah, inspiration. That fickle friend who shows up on your doorstep without notice and leaves in the middle of the night without saying goodbye. For a long time, I equated inspiration with escape — I was constantly in search of experiences that would remove me from the banality of ordinary life and offer me some fresh, hitherto unrealized perspective on the human condition. Then, maybe, I’d have enough inspiration to finally finish a manuscript.
Alas, that didn’t happen. What I’ve learned, in the last year of travel bans and reading slumps, is that the ability to recognize inspiration is largely a matter of paying attention. When we’re stressed out, overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed, our attention is turned inward or hyper-focused on survival — and in such states, we often fail to notice or appreciate what’s right in front of us.
Like much else about writing, finding inspiration is a practice. Although there are many possibilities for curating inspiration (too many to list here), these are a few techniques that have been helpful to me over the last year:
Browse through collections of old photographs. We’ve all heard that saying, “a photo is worth a thousand words,” and perhaps that’s not too far off the mark. Writer and filmmaker Ransom Riggs’ debut novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, was inspired by a collection of vintage photographs. So dig out those old family albums or browse through online collections of photos from a different era. Find any images that trigger your sense of curiosity. What delirious joys and muted tragedies are hidden behind the frame? Keep an album of photos that inspire you so that you can return to them whenever you need story ideas. (Pinterest is also a great resource for aesthetics and mood boards.)
Visit a yard sale, thrift shop, flea market, or antique store. These treasure troves are rife with inspiration. Take a stroll through a flea market and identify an object that speaks to you. Who might have been its previous owner? Was it well-worn or used? Does it have any distinguishing features, odors, or textures? If you have a notebook with you, write down your impressions and return to them at a later time. Try writing a piece of flash fiction (500 words or less) based on that object.
Observe people and imagine their lives. Even without large public gatherings, it’s possible to socially distance and observe people in their everyday glory — for instance, while sitting on a park bench, waiting in line at the grocery store, or even while stuck in traffic. Agora contributor Bethany Hudson wrote an article about why you should take the time to people-watch (but not in a creepy way, she advises).
Listen to music in a language you don’t speak. If you find music with lyrics distracting (or even if you don’t), try listening to music in an unfamiliar language. There’s something liberating about not being bound to the lyrics of a song. Instead, immerse yourself in the rhythm and melody. What stories are being conveyed through pure sound? Listening to music from another culture can transport you to other worlds, where battle cries resound, star-crossed lovers defy all odds, and old gods are worshipped at the edge of a cliff under the light of the moon.
Explore a new, hands-on artistic medium. Sometimes it takes a while for inspiration to translate into words. Try allowing your subconscious to express itself through another medium, such as painting, mixed media art, photography, or even gardening or cooking. The important thing isn’t so much the medium or the result, but recovering a sense of playfulness and perspective.
Exercise. Yes, the body and the mind are interconnected. If you find yourself stuck in a rut after spending hours struggling to resolve the latest plot hole you’ve dug yourself into, go for a walk or a run, practice yoga, lift weights — do something physical to cycle that energy through your body. Movement can help jog your thoughts as well as your limbs. Also, it can serve as a “palate cleanser” in the transition from school or day job activities to writing.
Start a writing routine. If time management is an issue, consider starting a routine. Haruki Murakami follows this strict routine several months out of the year: he wakes up at 4 am, writes for four to five hours, exercises (runs 10 km or swims 1500 m, or both, like a fitness god), reads and listens to music in the evening, and goes to bed at 9 pm every night. He says, “The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”
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