“There were so many frightful times when I was totally “unilluminated” and feared that I could never write again.”
~Carson McCullers, Illumination and Night Glare
Where do you find inspiration when the well is dry, the light dim? How do you engage in creative work amidst the onslaught of headlines of terror attacks, mass shootings, natural disasters, and White House insanity? As you attend to the relentless demands of everyday life, how do you carve space for illumination?
Here are some of my ideas and those gleaned from other writers and artists.
l. Start the day with beauty.
Do you start the day with the news report? Is your phone screen the first image your eyes take in? This is a hard habit to break but doing so can do wonders for your mood and muse. I know it’s hard to think about beauty when you’re getting ready for work or trying to get the kids off to school. But taking a moment to notice beauty, rather than the news headlines, can lift your spirit.
Instead of checking your Twitter feed, try feeding your soul. Take in scenes of nature. Research studies have demonstrated that just looking at nature scenes can reduce stress and increase pleasant feelings. This alone may open the door to inspiration.
The beauty of language soothes and inspires me. Every morning at breakfast, I try to read a poem. This warms up my brain for creative work which, for me, is usually done early in the day.
2. Take A Walk
Walking has long been considered a way to open the mind. Naturalist, writer, and avid walker Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal, “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” Walking is especially helpful for me when I’m about to begin a new writing project. Walking engages our senses, clears our mind of clutter, and gets the blood flowing—all helpful for finding that creative spark. (If you’re interested in learning more about the cognitive benefits of walking, check out Why Walking Helps Us Think, New Yorker, 9/3/14.)
3. Create a Playlist
It goes without saying that music can inspire. Music can also serve as an anchor to a specific time in your life and take you right back to the associated emotions and memories. I’ve created mood playlists—melancholy, tense, romantic, happy—to help me get into a specific scene. Some writers use a specific playlist while working on a novel. Young adult author Rainbow Rowell’s main characters bond over 1980’s music. The author listened to these songs while drafting her novel, Eleanor & Park. (Rainbow shared the playlist with her fans on Spotify and YouTube.)
4. Learn from the Masters
All art is about craft, so learn your craft. Read wisdom from the masters–Virginia Wolfe, Anne Lamott, Stephen King, Chekov, Ursula Le Guin, John Gardner. Take solace that even the greats lose their muse (and sometimes their minds). The successful artists you admire all doubt themselves, muddle through the middle, give up on manuscripts, have dry spells, and get rejected—just like you! I keep several craft books near my desk. One of my favorites is Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. When I sit down to write, I open one book to a random page and absorb the lesson at hand. I also turn to my collection of inspiring quotes from writers and other creative thinkers.
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and give to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
~William Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
5. Try Pen and Paper
If you always plan, outline, and compose on a computer, try paper and pen for a change. This not only removes the distraction of the internet, but also the delete button. (How many times have you deleted a sentence or idea 5 seconds after typing it?) Writing by hand forces you to slow down, to more closely consider your thoughts and feelings. And just by engaging a different process for creative inspiration, your brain is primed for novelty. You’re ready to brainstorm. Jot down every idea, question, and connection that pops into your head. Don’t censor. Explore all possibilities.
7. Stay Curious
Keep asking questions. Ask: What If? Read widely. Wonder. Talk to people who are very different from you. Jot down snippets of interesting conversation. Visit new places. Collect things. I like buying old postcards and photographs in antique shops and then imagining the stories behind them.
7. Show Up
Sometimes its best to just get started. Make art a daily companion, not an occasional visitor. Instead of saying “someday”, choose someday—like today. Or as Stephen King bluntly states: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up. ~Jane Yolen
8. Trust the process.
If you’ve ever suffered from insomnia, you know how the anxiety of waiting for sleep and worrying that it won’t come actually delays its arrival. I think the same can be true for inspiration. Instead of fretting that you don’t have the idea, the words, the vision, the melody—you may just need to surrender. Be patient. Wait a while. Some ideas arrive banging on your door, others gestate for years. Keep listening.
“The statue in the stone. How does the artist find that, see it, before it’s visible?”
~Ursula K. Le Guin
And sometimes in order to go forward, you have to first meet the place where you are stuck and grapple with it on the blank page.
When my father was killed, I felt a part of me die with him. Afterward, I could barely speak, let alone write. Inspiration eluded me. Only after braving the demon, could I begin to create again. I didn’t want to write about the experience; I needed to. Inspiration isn’t always rosy and warm. Inspiration can come from a place of darkness. And by entering this place with courage and vulnerability, you can create something that illuminates.
My latest writing is published in the December issue of Hippocampus Magazine. It’s the hardest essay I’ve ever written.
How do you capture inspiration?