Thursday, April 17, 2008

Work in Progress: Inspiration

Everyone always wants to know where the ideas come from. For me, that’s not often a problem: the problem is having too many ideas, too much to want to write about. Where does this bounty come from? And what if you’re feeling blocked, or disinterested in your usual sources of ideas, or looking to shake things up by trying something new (a good thing to do periodically, I think: SHAKE IT UP!)

Here are some tried and true sources I turn to for inspiration or to shake up the way I look at the world:

--First, I’m not shy about looking through writing exercise books. There are zillions out there, and usually you can tell by glancing through the pages if one speaks to you or not. Here are two that I particularly enjoy: Writing Without the Muse and What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers (both available used and worth extra effort to seek out).

--Art. Look at a painting or photograph and imagine the lives behind it. I collect pictures from magazines of people and places that seem interesting to me for whatever reason. I love to leaf through that file and see what rises to the surface.

--People on the metro or at a party (or anywhere). Who are they? Where are they going? What’s happening in their lives? I especially enjoy this activity when I feel that “real life” has been taking me away from my writing; here’s a way to spin through some stories when I don’t have enough time to sit at the computer…spin them in your head as you wait in line at the grocery store, instead.

--Overheard conversations. Eavesdrop and include the dialogue you hear into a story. I expanded on this idea in this post about dialogue.

--Childhood memories. Think about your favorite summer, your best birthday present—or your worst summer, worst birthday present. Holidays and family are very fertile places to look for ideas. Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who has survived childhood has a lifetime worth of material to write about. I agree! What do you remember about your childhood? Often choosing a very specific, very concrete memory—and then taking off from there—will result in a wonderful story or personal essay.

--Science or history (or some field you don’t know much about). The world is full of amazing facts that cry for stories. You can do a bit of research about something that interests you in a book or on the internet. Say, lightning. Before you know it, you’ve found a site for people who have survived lightning strikes. How can anyone not want to write something about that? The solution to the end of my novel A Year and a Day came from reading a book of science “factoids”: “Sound travels faster in water than in air and even faster in iron and steel. Sounds traveling a mile in 5 seconds in air, will travel the same distance in 1 second underwater and travel 1/3 of a second in steel.”* Who knew? (Okay, probably countless scientists.) *From The Handy Science Answer Book, complied by the Science and Technology Department of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

--Same with the newspaper. According to declining newspaper circulation statistics, I may be in the minority here, but I can’t imagine not reading a newspaper every day. Not only to hear what’s going on in the world, but, more importantly, to get material for writing. That filler about the cabbage shaped like Nixon’s head? That goes in my file. The story about the man who was a model citizen and then one day robbed a bank…any writer would have to ask: Why? Writing the story is the best (only?) way to find out.

--Another one of my favorite ways to start writing something—or to think about writing in a new way—is to take three objects that seem unrelated and try to put them together in a story. Or, even better, three things that have happened to me recently—for example, I saw a car hit a squirrel on the same day that a woman who’s an acquaintance told me she was moving to a retirement community and selling her house of 32 years. Immediately, those things felt somehow connected.

In the end, what matters most is not that you do the things on this list or any list, but that you search for ways that make YOU feel connected to your creative side—whatever those things might be. Take classes at the Writer’s Center, go to readings, meet a friend after work or at a coffee shop and do exercises together, read-read-read, and write-write-write. Walk through a park, sprawl in the grass. Eat your ice cream with your eyes closed. Whatever it takes! The creative side is like a muscle and needs a pattern of exercise…don’t ever neglect the poor thing.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.