by | Nov 18, 2013 | Writing

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”  –Pablo Picasso

I’ll tell you a secret: inspiration is a fickle, fickle mistress.

The enchanted well is full of absinthe (according to Hemingway.)

The enchanted well is full of absinthe
(according to Hemingway.)

One of the questions people ask me most frequently about my writing process is, “Where do you get your inspiration?” Despite the frequency of its asking, the question usually catches me off guard, leaving me struggling to answer with half-sentences and mixed metaphors. Why is the question so difficult? Not because I am never inspired, nor because inspiration doesn’t exist, but because at any given time I have no idea where my next jolt of inspiration will come from. There is no enchanted well that I drink from, no mystical invocation to a Muse, no Zeus’ fire bolt from Olympus. Gee, I wish.

Nope. There’s just me, and my weird little brain, and the world around me.

Inspiration comes from all sorts of places, and sometimes nowhere at all. Confused yet? Let me try to explain. An dream, an image, a phrase, a name, or even a single word; sometimes the simplest, most banal occurrence can set off a veritable waterfall of ideas that lead to plot outlines, interesting characters, entire made-up worlds. One of the major world-building elements in my most recent novel was based almost entirely on a recurring dream I had years ago. I wrote a short story inspired by nothing more than a short phrase that popped into my head one random afternoon. Reading, living, watching, listening, being. Daydreaming. A lot of daydreaming. And sometimes that’s all it takes.

(The other night my husband glanced over at me and saw me silently staring into space. “Don’t you have anything to read?” he asked. “I am reading,” I replied. “It’s just a book that hasn’t been written yet.” The look on his face told me he was just a teeny bit freaked out. That’s what he gets for marrying a writer.)

Maybe I should write this book after all. Image via Threadless

Maybe I should write this book after all.
Image via Threadless

And other times, inspiration isn’t so simple. I have to go hunting. Sometimes I play the “What If?” game, where I choose something seemingly inane and ask the question “What If?” until my brain offers up something moderately interesting. For example: What if cats were psychic? What if they were psychic because of aliens? What if cats were emissaries of a vast alien nation? What if they wanted to take over the world? Soon, I’m deep in the midst of a trans-galactic conspiracy involving prophetic space-cats. I may never actually write a word about these space-cats, but who knows? Somewhere amid all that nonsense I may find a tidbit of interest that inspires me to write something entirely different. (Andrew Bosley’s Brainstormer app can be great for this sort of thing, too. It’s fun even for non-writers.)

But, like Picasso said, the most reliable source of inspiration is the process of working itself. Just writing: pounding out words, and more words, and even more words. It might not happen right away, but eventually just going through the motions of writing is the straightest path to inspiration. Creation breeds creativity, and vice versa. It might not be right the first time. It might not even be good. But nothing is ever static, especially when it comes to inspiration. So I let the words guide me to the inspiration, and then let the inspiration guide the words. It’s messy, and hard, and frustrating, but until I find that enchanted well to drink from, it’s the best I can do.

Where do you find your inspiration? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below!