Searching for Inspiration

Last week at a school assembly, a student asked me, “Where do you get your writing inspiration?”

I blurted something out on the spot, but I kept thinking about the question. Where do I find writing inspiration? Most of my writing time feels more like running on a treadmill than communing with an otherworldly Muse, but inspiration is a part of the process.

I guess my shortest answer is that inspiration can be found anywhere if you’re looking for it. A good friend of mine finds inspiration for paintings in freeway overpasses. Another designs knitting patterns based on California state parks. I’ve found inspiration in many places (some of them odd), but as I thought about it, I was able to identify five of my most common sources of inspiration:

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  1. Nature. A refreshing break from Photoshop and airbrushing, the beauty of the outdoors is real. Colors, shapes, textures, are all there for the soaking in. When I’m stuck on a scene or just feeling blocked in general, a walk or hike outside often gets me going again.
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Photo credit: Jim Hillmann

2. People. In their infinite variety and wonder, in their beauty and their ugliness, in their interactions with me and with each other, people are a powerful source of inspiration. If you want to be a good writer, I think you have to start by observing the people around you.

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3. Spiritual life. The words “inspiration” and “Spirit” reveal an etymological relationship that shouldn’t really be surprising. Praying and writing are both kinds of self-forgetfulness.

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4. Books. Not of course, for plot events to copy. But books inspire me because I love to watch how other authors handle characters, interweave storylines, and measure suspense. It’s the same reason that dancers watch recordings of ballets and athletes watch the Olympics. If you’re a writer, you want to observe other writers to learn the craft.

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5. Details. I tell my students to be aware of the world around them, to use their five senses, to stop and notice the things that someone else might pass by. You never know when, in the rush of writing, you’ll reach out for an image or symbol and hit upon the fierce flower you saw pushing through a picket fence this morning.

And, as I tell my students, wherever inspiration comes from, make sure you write it down! I’m pretty sure I’d never remember anything if it weren’t for the various notebooks I carry with me (almost) everywhere.

Where do you find your inspiration?

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