Working at inspiration

Posted: July 16, 2012 in Uncategorized
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There’s a tendency to talk about inspiration as something mystical, some flash-from-nowhere power. I think that’s nonsense. Inspiration is like any act of imagination, it’s something you work at.

Partly, this is a long term project. The more time you spend thinking about how you can apply your experiences to stories the more effortless that will become. When I first started writing I’d occassionally notice something interesting. The way light streamed from a porch on a spring evening. The curve of a statue in a gallery. A concept from sociology that explained why people listen to others. I’d note that thing down, I’d think about its ramifications or how it could be used to add colour to a story. I’d mould it into a shape that I could use.

As time went by that got easier. I’d see that fall of light and I’d know straight away how to use it in my current scene. Or I’d hear that sociological concept and see immediately how it could motivate a character. And that was when those moments of inspiration really started to fly. Those flashing insights, the realisation that, hey, that bird would be a good model for monster A, a great metaphor for Lord B’s character, or maybe a hobby for character C, like ornithology or taxidermy, and that’s why her and B don’t get on, and…

Those moments were coming because I’d worked at building a better creative engine, a set of thought processes that were better than ever at creating the ideas I wanted.

But working at it is a short term thing too. This week I’ve been reading Eileen Power’s Medieval Women, because I’m planning a story that involves several medieval women*. For the first few pages I didn’t get much from the book. It was interesting enough, but nothing was really sparking. Then I took one concept, about the deeply divided attitudes to women in medieval Christianity (praise the Virgin Mary, bemoan Eve’s part in the fall, compare all women to both, develop feelings of confusion normally restricted to teenagers). I thought about the ramifications of that for my story and wrote it down. Half a page later, with that idea already in my head, I read something else that fitted with it, so I noted that down. And again. And again. Ten minutes later I was spending more time making notes than actually reading. That engine I mentioned earlier had got warmed up, and now it was really rolling. One of the most important fuels for creativity is more creativity.

So, messy engine metaphors aside, what’s the point of this? It’s that ideas and creativity don’t just happen, and realising that, working on mine over time and in each moment, has really helped me. Inspiration doesn’t just happen. You make it happen.

*And also because I’m something of a history nerd – there’s a reason I studied it solidly for six years.

  1. qbik4 says:

    great idea, one that i think is really tenable considering the fact that many writers consider it their duty to read as much, if not more, than what they write. that way “sociological ideas” like you list are part of a steady diet of inspiration. basically, the more things you give yourself to be inspired by, the more inspiration will strike you.

    however, wouldn’t you agree there’s some unexplained process in the link between the inspiring source and your own creation? like how you can transform what you see into your own thought? I think that’s what still keeps the idea of inspiration as a romantic one, given that there’s some mysterious quality to synthesis after stimulation

    • I like the idea of inspiration as something romantic, qbik4, and I do love the sense of mystery that comes when I don’t know where a specific idea came from. But in practice, I think that sense of mystery is me kidding myself. The link between the inspiring source and your own creation is that you’ve trained your brain, whether deliberately or through happenstance (and happenstance will only take you so far), to bang ideas together until they create a spark. Trying to keep that mysterious makes it romantic, but it also detracts from your role as a thinking person in shaping the process. In my view, it’s better to take responsibility for it and use that to motivate you to work harder.

      You know what, there’s probably another whole blog post in this. Might have to come back to it in the next few days.

  2. Sheila Thomas says:

    Andy, I did a load of research on women in 1220 for the nuns’ chapter in the Ars Magica ‘Church’ book – happy to share my reading list and lend books if they would help.

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