“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club”. Jack London said it many years ago, but it’s still relevant today. Whether you’re focusing on short stories, novels, or web content, there are many ways to chase inspiration for writing, and sometimes, you don’t even have to leave your house. Here are ten ways you can go about it. Try the one you like the most, or try them all.
Develop a Hobby You Enjoy
“…do what only a true artist can do … pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation…” – Vladimir Nabokov
Did you know that Vladimir Nabokov spent more time comparing butterfly genitalia (to differentiate species) than writing? Nabokov’s interest in entomology was kindled by books he found in the attic of his family’s house when he was a boy. It remained a constant throughout his life.
“The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru,” he said.
Nabokov’s writings on butterflies were very detailed and exact, just like his prose. While it’s hard to measure the effect that his passion for butterflies had on his writing, running after them took him out of the office and exposed him to places and people totally different from the usual milieu of academia – libraries and universities. That sort of indirect inspiration that comes with pursuing an unlikely hobby can be a powerful creative trigger for any writer.
All this doesn’t mean you should go hunting for ideas among the butterflies. That was Nabokov’s thing. You have to find a hobby that works for you, whether it’s photography, trainspotting, or birding. Something that complements and enhances your writing.
Talk About the Fears You’re Hiding
“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” – William Faulkner
Many of us writers are shy, quiet, fearful people. We’re afraid of grammatical mistakes, of not being read, of not being published, of writer’s block, and of a hundred other things. But beneath these common fears, there are deeper fears lurking in us: fear of people, of relationships, of being in specific situations or doing certain things.
These are fears we can keep to ourselves all our lives. We don’t speak about them because they spring from an intimate place within us into which we hardly dare venture to ourselves, let alone invite others.
But hidden fears can make for great writing. Readers feel empathy for writers who write from a position of vulnerability. That’s why fear can be a powerful creative catalyst. Just think of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, where Gregor Samsa wakes up one day to find himself “transformed into some kind of monstrous vermin.”
Could it be that Kafka echoed in that famous opening the angst that he himself was feeling clerking for the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute, a tedious job he despised?
You can take your greatest fear – or at least your second greatest, you probably have a few – and turn it into a reservoir of inspiration that will fuel your writing. Explore your fear and try to make sense of it – where it comes from, what it does to you, where it will all likely lead. All of that can make for powerful creative writing.
Love (Not Enough or Too Much)
“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” – Herman Melville
Love in one form or other permeates many of the world’s best-loved novels. Writers as different as Ernest Hemingway, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Oscar Wilde have woven beautiful works around one of the constant themes of writing – love. Love is a recurrent theme for any writer. But writing about how wonderful your relationship is, is seldom a noteworthy effort.
It’s unrequited love, impossible love, crazy love, or some other thwarted and frustrated form of it that can be the most inspiring. Readers always sympathize with writers and protagonists who chase love or fall out of it in a bad way. In those stories, they see their own love stories replayed.
Being in love or chasing love is, for any writer, a steady source of inspiration. When you’re in love, or out of love, let your joys and sorrows ignite your creativity. It’s a great state to write from.
Read Nonfiction, Too
“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
You probably love to read fiction – novels, short stories, poetry. That’s great. There’s a consensus among writers that every book you read can make you a better writer. Every fiction book that passes through your hands has something to teach you, either by good or bad example. If you can’t learn from it what to do, you can learn what not to do. But sometimes it pays off to resist the gravitational pull of novels and immerse yourself in nonfiction.
Nonfiction books and articles, whether published online or printed in magazines or newspapers, are packed with stories and facts. They teach you a host of new things and stimulate your creativity. Reading nonfiction is like jangling lots of ideas, any one of which can serve as the basis for a creative piece.
“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” – Ernest Hemingway.
Reading nonfiction gives you many truths that can later flourish into beautiful stories. Remember this next time you head over to the bookstore or library. Grab a novel or two, throw in some short stories if you want, but don’t forget to mix in some nonfiction, too. There are so many great nonfiction books out there, on topics as diverse as science, anatomy, sociology, geography, or history that can inspire you.
“Words are a lens to focus one’s mind.” – Ayn Rand
To meditate doesn’t have to mean sitting on the floor cross-legged until your butt hurts. And you don’t need a bell or chanting, either. Meditation is really about pausing for a moment and following your breath – the in and out swinging in your chest – while clearing your head of thoughts.
“But I don’t want to clear my head of thoughts,” you may say. “I want creative ideas!”
Sometimes, the best way to come up with new ideas is not to hunt for them, but to invite them to find us. To let them sprout in our mind like the good seeds Buddhists talk about. This means clearing our minds of the many worries and plans that bounce in our heads every day.
You can meditate while waiting in line at the post office or cafeteria. You can meditate in a traffic jam. You can meditate in the bus or tram, on your way to work.
When you need a solution to a creative puzzle, thinking about it assiduously won’t always solve it. But being calm and patient might. Even after just a few moments of meditation, you can emerge into a new clarity that sharpens the contours of all your ideas. It’s the sort of clarity that, like a lens, can concentrate inspiration and kick-start a fire.
Breathe in, breathe out, clear your mind. Let the inspiration find you in silence.
Take Solo Trips Away from Home
“Only in men’s imagination does every truth find an effective and undeniable existence. Imagination, not invention, is the supreme master of art as of life.” – Joseph Conrad
Traveling alone requires a bit of courage. It can be a challenge to set out somewhere when you just don’t know who is going to sit beside you on the plane. But that creates a wonderful possibility. When you travel alone, you meet and interact with people more easily. You get invited into people’s lives more often.
It’s very different from having a companion or two and talking with them all the time. You’ll have more one on one conversations and that can create rapport and familiarity. People will open up more to you and you will see more of their lives.
Traveling alone has another benefit for the creative mind – it helps you zoom in on specific details you encounter. When you see something that attracts your attention – an object, a scene, a building – you can linger before it for as long as you like, without anyone tugging at your arm. Your senses will also process the impressions of the new places you’re discovering more carefully.
Many great writers were avid travelers, even in times when traveling wasn’t as cheap and as convenient as it is today. Just think of Jack Kerouac or Ernest Hemingway. The hardest part about traveling solo is stepping out the door. Do that at least once and you will understand why traveling alone is great for writers.
Listen to Strangers Talk
“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” – Ernest Hemingway
Everyone has a story to tell. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we are bound to meet people and strike up conversations with them. Sometimes these conversations turn into enjoyable talks, and we make new friends. Listening to others is a great way to unearth the stories that so much daily life and experiences have buried deep in memory.
If you nurture the habit of listening, you can learn so much from strangers. A lot of that can then go into writing. The stories that strangers tell you can kick-start your imagination. They can help you put together a treasure trove of anecdotes you can sprinkle in your writing. They can inspire you.
Read Other Writers’ Biographies
“Biographies are no longer written to explain or explore the greatness of the great. They redress balances, explore secret weaknesses, demolish legends.” – A. S. Byatt
Some say that great writers are born, not made. That’s an idea that can return to haunt you when you’re out of inspiration for writing. But if you take the time to read the biographies of some of the world’s most inspiring novelists, you’ll notice two things:
1. Most writers battled with rejection, a dry inkpot, and other problems before they made a name for themselves.
2. Most writers did what they could to get through life while painstakingly working on their books.
Did you know that John Steinbeck was a fruit picker and a construction worker before becoming a well-known author? Or that William S. Burroughs worked as an exterminator in Chicago? You can learn many cool things and at the same time find a reservoir of inspiration in the biographies of famous writers.
Make the Most of Tight Spots
“A wounded deer leaps the highest.” – Emily Dickinson
However unpleasant tight spots may be – and there will be plenty of them – sadness and hardship can fuel your writing. Much of the world’s great writing was but a way for writers to transcend their difficulties and get into a place of comfort. Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf are two great examples. Most of their lives they struggled with mental illness. They found solace in their writing.
Even if both had tragic ends, they managed to create wonderful works of literature that have not only outlasted them but also helped future generations better understand their illnesses and cope with them. When the going gets tough, write.
Stop When the Going Gets Good
“If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred, you have the odds in your favor.” – Edgar Rice Burroughs
Some writers and artists have very specific working routines. When working on a novel, the great Japanese writer Haruki Murakami wakes up around 5 a.m. and writes until noon. He does this every day with unfaltering dedication. He is in “novel-writing” mode. But here’s the catch: by noon he stops. He goes swimming. He runs. He reads a little. He doesn’t go back to writing until the next day.
Hemingway and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, did the same. They woke up early, they wrote, they stopped. They left unfinished work to grow like leavened bread. Leaving your subconscious to work for you while you do other things can be a powerful way to keep your writing fresh and generate ideas. Try it and you will see.