Friday, July 13, 2012

Finding the Light Bulb

"Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration"
                                                                 --Albert Einstein
The same thing can be said about writing.  It starts with a spark of an idea and then takes hours, days, weeks or even years of hard work as the writer transforms the vision into a manuscript.  The art of writing certainly requires creativity, but much of writing is just plain hard work, wrestling with words, struggling with sentences until the manuscript is molded into shape.  It's important to note, however, that the process of writing begins with the idea.  Without that, the work part  is a moot point.

Artists are sometimes pictured in cartoons and movies as waiting for inspiration, calling out to their muse or simply hoping that someone will yank the chain to turn the light bulb on over their heads. This behavior, though, leads to a very unproductive career.  Instead of waiting inspiration to show up, a writer needs to FIND it.  There are two ways to do this: directly and indirectly.

Some direct ways to find inspiration
* People watch
        --go to the park or the mall, take a seat on a bench or at the food court and let the fun (and let your imagination) begin.  What is that couple talking about?  Are they falling in love or are they breaking up?  Maybe she's just accepted a paid-in-full scholarship to Oxford and he can't afford to move to England.  Or maybe they're Canadian spies working on the takeover of the U.S. government (only she's a double-agent).  What about that guy who's rushing through the food court.  Who is he? Where is he going?  Why is he rushing?  Then there is the little red haired girl with the half-eaten chocolate chip cookie.  Who'd guess she is actually a fairy who has left the magical world and disguised herself as a seven year old in order to learn about the human world?

* Listen
         --at a restaurant, at a coffee shop or in the grocery store line, listen for random sentences.  Even mundane sentences, taken out of context, can be excellent springboards.  "He found it in the refrigerator."  He did?  What did he find?  An alien?  A deadly mold that will threaten human survival unless he can find the way to contain it and destroy it?  The blood-stained knife used in the murder?  A scared kitten curled up in an abandoned old refrigerator?

*Notice song lyrics
         --of course you can't use the lyric itself or even what it means in the context of the song.  That would plagiarism.  However, you can use a line of lyric as a springboard.  For example, The erstwhile Irish Pop band, The Corrs, wrote a song called "Forgiven, Not Forgotten."  My favorite line in the song is, "And the one-eyed furry toy that lies upon the bed has often heard her cry." So how can you use that line as inspiration without committing plagiarism?  You could write a story (not the same one the song is about) from the point of view of a stuffed animal. The stuffed animal could be the narrator.  Another thought: the stuffed animal could be a symbol.  Of what? Perhaps a symbol of a little girl, now a woman, who has been battered by life but who is determined to hold on to the ideals of her youth. Let the image of the toy percolate in your imagination.

*Look at pictures
          --just put "Images of..." into a search engine and see what comes up.  When I teach narrative writing to my students, I often put "Images of baby animals" or "Funny images of people" into the Google search engine then have the students write a story based on the picture.  Wonderful stuff comes up. "One picture is worth a thousand words". Try it sometime.

An Indirect Way to Inspiration

        --Be open and receptive.  Sometimes inspiration does find you, but you have to be prepared to recognize it.  Three inspirations of this kind contributed to the psychological mystery that I am working on. The first was when I was working as a nurse and was asked to transport a patient with a psychosis from the neuro floor to a private room in another unit.  On the way he told me something and followed it with the statement, "But no one believes anything say because I'm a psych patient."  That got to my heart and it started me thinking.  How hard is that?  To know that no one is going to believe you even if what you say is true.  Another thing that contributed to the birth of the book was an article about a singer I liked whose wife had left him because she felt he cared more about his career than about her.  A third thing was the Simon and Garfunkel reunion concert in Central Park.  I loved the idea of two guys being friends since their teen years, then becoming estranged and later reconciling the relationship. All three of these things were part of the starter mix that evolved into my current WIP.

 So what about you?  Do any of these ideas speak to you?  What are the ways you find inspiration?



  1. FINALLY I have time to sit down and write....I was inspired by reading about New Mexico history. After learning about the Long Walk, I had a flaming "what if?" moment, and here I am, one whole book later, ready to freak!!
    History had always inspired me. I cannot tell you how many stories I've made up just reading history books.

  2. I'm looking forward to reading your book. It's exciting that you are able to go to New Mexico, Arizona and Oklahoma and get the Navaho translations done. At some point, maybe you'll be able to go back to Oklahoma to the Red Earth Festival, the largest gathering of Native Americans in the country. Usually it's held in April and it's spectacular. I lived just outside of Oklahoma City and was able to go to the festival twice. I think you'd really enjoy it.

    I absolutely agree with you about history. It's always fascinated and excited me -- any history of any place. I've been watching a PBS series called "Michael Woods History of England." It's a history of England from the Romans onward as told through the lives and records of people in the villages of Kibworth, England. In the episode I watched today, the narrator went to the house of the Brown family and discussed a medieval couple, William and Joan Brown who were "drapers." They went to the big city of Coventry and joined the guild there and became upwardly mobile, moving from peasant class to middle class. A grandson or great-grandson (I don't remember which) actually had risen so high that he was offered the mayorship of Coventry, but he declined it as he was too busy with his business in London. I thought wouldn't it be fun to write a historical fiction novel based on this family? Yes, history is definitely a great source of inspiration. The problem is: so much history, so little time. :)