As a writer, I’m sure you look everywhere for inspiration. Maybe there’s a bully from your past who you’ve turned into a super villain, or maybe the shape of a cloud on a summer’s day gave you an interesting idea. Super cheesy, but you get the point.
Personally, anything that sticks out to me as weird or interesting goes into my little notebook. Sometimes a little idea can’t blossom into a full-blown story, but multiple interesting ideas can turn into something wonderful when combined. Don’t believe me? Then let’s explore different ways to find inspiration, and hopefully one of them will help you get your story going.
“For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”
– Vincent Van Gogh
Just like Van Gogh, is there a particular place or sight or sound that inspires you to dream? Discover for yourself what inspires you. Do you enjoy people watching? Keeping track of strange ideas that pop into your head randomly? Or, do you prefer the proven technique of studying other authors within your genre?
Let’s start with reading. I read just as much for the enjoyment of reading as I do for seeking inspiration in the words of others. There are plenty of stories I come across that make me pause and say, “What did I just read?” As in, where did that idea come from? How did this author come up with such a profound, thought-provoking story? I agree with Joyce Carol Oates when she said, “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.” If you can come across something so amazing as to allow you to “slip into another’s skin,” then I would say that you have found inspiration. Keep track of how certain stories make you feel. A nifty little journal would be a great place to pen your thoughts, your ideas, your inspirations.
Other than reading, one should look for inspiration in the world around them. As aforementioned, a little notebook or journal is a great place to keep ideas. See someone talking to a tree in the park? Write that down. Hear a child confide in a dog that he can’t lie to his mother about something? Write that down. You’d be surprised by how many weird little occurrences you’ll come across. Once you have enough ideas, you might see correlations between some and come up with a decent idea for a story.
What about music? I love listening to music while I draw or do the dishes. Spacing out during these times helps me to think about different scenarios for stories, or connect the dots between two seemingly random ideas I previously had. Don’t listen to music much? Try it sometime. Add another layer to this by listening to what you would consider “inspiring” music while browsing crazy art on deviantart or something. I’ve come up with short story ideas on a few occasions by doing this.
I came across the blog of a grade school teacher, Denise M Cassano, who discussed the use of art as inspiration for writing and generating discussion among her students. She said, “While using art in the classroom, students transfer this visual content, and then add new ideas and information from their personal experiences to create newly invented narratives.” While she is saying this in reference to her students, this can be true for someone at any age. Studying a work of art without knowledge of what the artist meant by it can help provoke new ideas and thoughts in the observer. So, take a chance sometime to study various works of art to see if any inspiration lies between the brushstrokes.
Do dreams inspire you as a writer? Can they? This may or may not be seen as a reliable source for inspiration, but humor me for a moment, will you? I have spoken with numerous writers, and it seems fairly common for writers to dream from various perspectives. For example: I’ve been Dean Winchester several times in my dreams. No shame here! Have you had similar experiences? I find that those who are more technically or scientifically minded do not have many dreams of this nature. Is that because we often try to think from someone else’s perspective when we are creating characters? Maybe. Either way, I have to thank my quirky little brain for the crazy dreams I’ve experienced in the past. Back to the thought of drawing inspiration from dreams; is it possible? I answer for myself with a wholehearted bellow of YES. I’ve been anything from a brain-thirsty zombie to a prostitute with a snake tattoo on my ankle. Some “experiences” have left me rattled, but I’m that much richer when it comes to story ideas. Don’t have a little journal specifically for dreams? I suggest you start one.
Moving on to the more agreeable way for finding inspiration: observing others (aka: borderline stalking). I personally find that people watching can be helpful. Not just for studying how people look, but also to closely watch and interpret the things they do. Do you ever come across someone who’s extremely rude to a cashier at the grocery store? I try to understand what led this person to such an action. Are they high-strung? Stressed? Were they raised as an only child and are used to getting what they want at the drop of a hat? When you try to interpret another person’s actions, it makes it far easier to convey that within your own writing, and to justify the actions of your characters.
If you want to delve even further into studying why people do the things they do, I suggest studying a little psychology or anthropology. Now, before you hyperventilate and yell at me through the screen for even suggesting such a thing, I am merely asking that you try to skim the surface of these subjects. Read up a little on how the mind works when someone is contemplating murder. Or, how a certain tribe in Africa established a certain religious or ritualistic practice. What leads people to do certain things? If skimming the surface is enough to generate some ideas, then all the more reason to go a little further. As much or as little as you would like, until you find the inspiration that you need. Knowledge is a great companion for writers, and I suggest you always seek out opportunities for learning and expanding your mind.
Afton and I took an anthropology class several years ago, so I can attest to the magnitude in which studying this subject can help in the writing process. Same goes for Psychology. I came across an author, Rachel Newcomb, who graduated with a masters in creative writing and also went on to become an anthropologist. It was interesting to read through a blog of hers in which she compares fiction writing to the process of writing an ethnography, (the scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures). Having this dual background has made her writing process unique, and I can see the benefits of studying anthropology when it comes to fiction writing. She said, “Some of us turn to fiction writing to create worlds resembling the ones we know, but which contain events that never happened. Fiction allows for the “what if,” the bringing together of invented characters in realms that we may know well, and then watching what happens. Unlike ethnography, there is no need to stay true to the people that one meets in the field. Liberalities can be taken with place and setting as well.”
As you can see, this author found that the study of both subjects to be beneficial to her writing career, and I can second that. Even if, as I said, you study just a little of these or similar subjects, you will have a greater depth of knowledge for what it means to be human, and for what we are capable of. When it comes down to it, that’s what writing is all about, isn’t it? So, find your inspiration, and pursue it with every fiber of your being. We all have a story to share. Get out there and write it.
Great article on finding inspiration: