How to Find Creative Inspiration
“What inspires you?” It’s a common question that is often met with uncertainty amongst young writers, including myself. Sometimes, inspiration seems to strike out of nowhere. Maybe you know your main plot points after waking up from a dream, or shape a character in the span of a train ride. But more often, inspiration is not a magic spell conjured up. While inspiration drives the passion for a story, it takes more than a stirred thought to write out every scene, line, and word. So how do you exercise inspiration and stretch it to fill your creative work? How can something as abstract as inspiration be broken down into concrete tips to trigger ideas? Here are five ways to tackle humdrum periods in the creative process:
1. Be in tune with your five senses and gut feelings. How do you personally react to loud sounds like sirens or slamming doors? Can you spot street art you hadn’t noticed before while walking from your car to the office? Is there a particular memory you associate with the smell of burnt, frozen waffles? How do you know you’re talking to your grandmother and not your teenage cousin? In my first short story in college, I featured a grandfather -- except in the first draft, he sounded more like an early twenty something female. To fine tune his voice, I listened to older generations’ manners of speaking and noticed how my own family members converse. Noticing your senses can also unravel any stories hidden behind your own behavior and preferences. And by being conscious of your complex-self and of different environments, you can create more realistic characters and settings.
2. Keep a notebook with you. Jack Kerouac couldn’t have written On the Road without amassing years of notes in his journal. When inspiration strikes, write it down because it may never come in the same way again. In places such as coffee shops and restaurants, where conversation abounds, it’s hard not to hear dialogue. Try jotting down conversations you hear. What struck you about the dynamics? Maybe you first noted tense body language between two people or a tilted voice? A man on a date babbled on the deterioration of his previous relationship, while his date slouched: “She chose her words very carefully. She didn’t really say a lot, but when she did, it was...right. I kind of ramble a lot.” Jot down details such as the way someone holds her hair or elaborate shoelaces of a passerby. A subway musician once stopped singing midway, enthused about my magenta ballet flats with panda heads plastered over the tips. She brought them to the entire train’s attention. While I was embarrassed, the moment reminded me that small details in someone’s appearance can make a big impression, even summing up a person. You never know what material you can look back on and be able to use for a story.
3. Read. It doesn’t matter if you’re not aiming to be the next Hemingway. Notice which books and authors you enjoy reading, and what you like about them. Is it the subject matter? The characterizations? The writing style? They will help fill you with new ideas and enlighten you, even if you can't travel to India to study with a guru. Read an array of books, including those you might not normally be inclined to peruse. After some recommendations, I read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, which I personally thought would be unrelatable. But its personification of a house, as well as its tender father and daughter moments ended up resonating with me. Furthermore, read the source material for adapted screenplays. What did The Lord of the Rings trilogy do effectively in a film platform that the books couldn’t convey, and vice versa? In what ways did director Baz Luhrmann make his mark on The Great Gatsby, and did they work for you?
4. Disconnect once in a while. It’s hard to focus on your own thoughts when you're constantly stimulated. While it may not be feasible to live like Thoreau by Walden Pond, it's possible to turn off the television set or shut your web browser. I often sit in front of my laptop with the intention of writing out a scene, only to google search news on the latest blockbuster. Hours later, I wonder where the time went. It’s too easy to get distracted. Close a few of those web tabs -- stop scrolling through random websites, skimming over Facebook friends’ updates, or posting photos of pen and paper on Instagram. Instead, use that extra time to actually write.
5. Live. I don’t know anyone who wakes up and thinks, "Today I am going to be inspired by a conversation with my local grocer." You never know what surprises you may encounter on an ordinary day, and thus you never know when inspiration will hit (which again, is why it’s important to keep a notebook)! One thing is for certain -- it’s hard to stay inspired if your only reference points are the four walls of a room. I used to be preoccupied with questioning myself about what I want write about. I knew I liked to write, but anyone can attest to the fact that there’s no joy in seeing random words printed on a page. But just by being alive and living, we have our own stories to tell with universal themes intertwined in them. For me, writing and living have become a give and take. So don't discount anything, embrace new experiences even if they're seemingly small and insignificant because these moments ultimately become our pool of inspiration.
Guest post from Tiffany Lew. Tiffany is a recent graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She covers arts and culture.
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