Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
Join The List!

Sign-up to receive stories, specials, & inspiration a few times a month.

search this site
« Giveaway Winner & A Sneak Peek | Main | One Story, Two Ways »

Tips on Inspiration (In The Word Cellar)

at the bottom of my yard (Diana F+, Kodak 400VC-3)

Thanks to everyone who's asked a writing question so far. Remember: Ask a question by the end of July to be entered to win a copy of Lanterns: A Gathering of Stories. Just leave a comment on this post or email me: jennifer{at}thewordcellar{dot}com. I'll choose the winner randomly, and there's no limit on the number of questions you can ask.

This week's topic comes from Dani who asked, "How do you stay inspired? How do you write when you're not?"

Inspiration is the creative ingredient with that je ne s'ais quoi quality. It comes. It goes. It's one fickle little imp. So I don't exactly know how to stay inspired; it's like catching the Tooth Fairy in action. Some days I feel it, some days I don't. But I'm practicing being committed to and enthusiastic about my creative work even when my mojo feels flat. I do know that these things usually help me to feel inspired:

  • getting out into the world instead of being a hermit;
  • having good conversations with people I love;
  • making tangible things such as paintings, photographs, or yummy meals; and
  • reading good books, listening to good music, and watching good movies.

But there are still plenty of days when everything I try to write bores me. This is when I remind myself to keep doing the work no matter how enthusiastic or inspired I might feel. Back in March I wrote a post called "How to Keep Creating" for this column. That list was all about approaching your creative work with kindness and a sense of honor of getting to do the work, while acknowledging the hard parts of creating. It's a rather philosophical post, albeit with a few handy tactics like, "When you look at the blank page and panic, type the first ten words that come to mind, no matter what they are. Then type ten more."

But what else can we do to approximate inspiration? Where are the practical tips, dammit?! (This is totally the voice inside my head. Not question-asker Dani's voice.)

Here are a three ideas.

1. Emulation (a.k.a. imitation)

Reading works you love can help to fuel your own writing. For one thing, it immerses your mind in the world of words and ideas, which can spark your own creativity. When I read a piece of writing that makes me think, "I wish I could write like that," I try to figure out why I love it and what the writer did to make it so wonderful.

And sometimes, I copy out a passage that I like and then imitate it as an exercise. I follow the general pattern set by the original author, substituting my own topic and words. This is a fun way to feel how the author has structured her sentences, how the language and rhythm work, how the theme stays focused or jumps around.

But, this practice method borders on unfair use and plagiarism, so I don't advocate using it for something you plan to publish as your own. As I said, consider this an exercise. In the end, you may find snippets of what you've written that you can use in another way. And if you do want to publish something that you've written in this way, be sure to credit the original author and her work. But again, I think you should treat this as a private exercise.

Here's an example so you can see how this works.

2. To Prompt or Not To Prompt?

I have mixed feelings about writing prompts. On one hand, I agree with poet Mary Ruefle (who is one of my MFA faculty members) who says that we don't need prompts devised by someone else. "The world is your prompt!" she said during a recent workshop. On the other hand, I think they can come in handy when you're really feeling stuck. After Mary declared prompts unnecessary, she then caved in and offered us this prompt, which she credited to fellow VCFA faculty member and poet Ralph Angel:

Walk in any direction for five to seven minutes. (You can do this outside or you can roam around inside a building.) Stop. Notice what surrounds you and write about it for the same length of time that you walked. Put your notes away. The next day, look at what you wrote and circle where the language is hot, where something interesting is happening. Put just those circled words on another piece of paper and use your own language as a writing prompt.

I think of this as the prompt of all prompts, like a meta-prompt. You create your own prompt organically. It's really just a formal method for drawing inspiration from the world around you.

3. Make Lists, Make Leaps

Not knowing what to write about is one thing. Prompts and emulation can help with that. But not knowing how to continue with a specific piece of writing is something else entirely. This is when I brainstorm and freewrite. For example, I'm writing an essay about whales right now. I know the essay isn't done, but I haven't figured out where it wants to go next. So I started a list of everything I could think of about whales. (A sampling: Jonah and Whale, Pinocchio, cultures that eat raw blubber.) I see if anything on the list sparks a thought-trail.

I also try freewriting on the topic, which is just me writing furiously, with no regard to coherency, grammar, spelling, or structure. I go as fast as I can and make any leap that comes to mind, no matter how crazy it is, just to see where it takes me. Essentially, I'm trying to trick myself into finding inspiration. I get stuck fairly often, so I use this technique a lot. Sometimes it takes a few tries, but eventually I find the thread and can move forward.

What are your tips for staying inspired? How do you find it when it's missing in action? Is inspiration overrated or is it essential? Leave your thoughts (and writing questions) in the comments.

In The Word Cellar runs on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Read other posts in the series here.

Reader Comments (2)

I enjoy coming here and just realized you are a member at Flock. Hi there!
I'm committing myself to writing daily. Here's my question:

A writing teacher of mine once said that she abhorred "crafted" writing. I never really understood what she meant. When I think of crafted I think of revising to make sure your tone and content say what you meant to say, that the piece does what it's supposed to do. Can you shed any light on this?
July 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKimberley McGill
love these thoughts Jenna. i know you know how i feel about prompts (thumbs up) but i really do get that point about the world is your prompt. i think some of us need some extra oomph! to remind us where to look in the world.

PS i brought ice cream to the word cellar tonight to read this one. just thought you should know.
August 1, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterliz elayne

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.