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How to Get Inspiration for Writing

One of the most dangerous myths about inspiration is that you must wait for it.

By David NeffPublished 5 years ago 3 min read

Inspiration is very vague. Even as the quality of work, it’s subjective. We can say that a speech is inspired, or a piece of art is inspiring, but what seems to be an inspired piece of writing to me, might seem just a flatulent passage to you. A documentary about environmental pollution can inspire one person to change the world, but will have a discouraging and depressing effect on another.

As a prerequisite for creating something, it’s even more elusive. Is it a sensation, like butterflies in the stomach? Is it more like deja-vu or a premonition? Is it an irresistible drive to pick up a brush or lay your hands on a keyboard? Is it an urge to share an idea with the world, or even just to get an idea out of your head and pin it down, explain it, first of all to yourself, flesh out a concept you can’t yet grasp?

One thing is certain–if you are going to sit there, and wait when your ultimate muse shows up, awash with golden light, and heralded by silver bells, it can take a while. What if you have a story to write by Friday? Then you’d better get practical.

Don’t set goals, form habits.

As Pablo Picasso once said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” You cannot wait for inspiration to write a novel, you have to start writing and keep writing every day. Take a little step at a time, without the pressure of expectation–but do it regularly.

When Neil Gaiman was working on the manuscript of American Gods, he was determined to write twenty pages daily. He admits he was lucky when he would end up with ten. In terms of goals he failed. Yet he finished the book, and won all those awards (Hugo, Bram Stoker Award, Locus, Nebula), and generally nailed it. All because he made himself show up at the desk every day.

Writing is a habit, a daily routine of the most prolific authors. It’s work–not some magic. Inspiration comes when you enter the flow state, not the other way around.

Face it: your success doesn’t matter.

That sounds a bit harsh, but this sure shutters many anxieties. Many people are like this: they freeze and don’t start writing, because they fear the result will be terrible. Sometimes I feel as if the entire world is watching me, and waiting for me to fail, wanting me to fail, so it could laugh in my face. I cannot feel inspiration, because I’m too afraid of impending humiliation. I remember having a hard time collecting myself to write my paper for college, because I was terrified of being judged, assessed, devalued, and mocked based on the number of mistakes I made.

Guess what? The world couldn’t care less. Your failures matter only to you, and only because you choose to care. Don’t let this phantom keep you from your dreams–just go for it. What you’ve got to lose? Don’t write to succeed, write because that’s what you like to do. If you have something important to say–say it. Don’t obsess about whether you’ve got the right voice for it.

Create your own inspiratorium.

Imagine a place where you would keep quotes, pictures, sounds, smells, and experiences you find inspiring. Every time you feel blank, and out of ideas, you could just go there and borrow one or two. That would be great, wouldn’t it?

So what’s keeping you? When you come across something that makes you feel strong emotions (happy, sad, elated, awed, curious)–save it. It can be a scrapbook, a corkboard, or a digital space such as Pinterest or Evernote. Any piece of art, account of your experiences, or a wild idea–just jot it down for later perusal. This might be a seed of something big and beautiful.

Another good idea is to devote a chapter of your inspiratorium to positive comments about your work. You must have got some compliments over the years–keep them in one place. Whenever you feel discouraged, anxious, and not up to it, reread those to remind yourself that you are good at writing. You can do it.

Finally, ask yourself, why writing? What made you choose this way of expression? Why not music, or sport, or business? What makes you think that it’s fun and rewarding to put words on the page? The answer you give yourself might be the only source of inspiration you will ever need.

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