Where Does Inspiration Come From?
Over the years, the questions most asked of me as a writer or columnist are “Where do you get your ideas?” and “How do you decide what to write about?”
I often must grab 10 minutes before a meeting or before going home to just write a few words or a paragraph.
Recently I was asked to create a handout on this topic for a Sunday school class at our church that has been exploring the creative urges within all of us, whether art, poetry, knitting, woodworking, gardening, or whatever.
I write because I live. In other words, the things I write about spring from life’s experiences. As long as I’m alive and kicking, I’m happiest if I can ponder and make sense of those experiences as I write about them. Isn’t that what most nonfiction writing is (such as reading this in the newspaper or online)? In addition to reading something that is informing and perhaps entertaining, it helps us make sense of what happens to us and all around us.
Last month in this column I wrote about Marianne Jantzi, a writer near Kitchener, Ontario, and the author of a new book, Simple Pleasures: Stories from My Life as an Amish Mother, who happens to be an Old Order Amish mother of four little ones. She writes about having an “itchy pen”—and in her case, it is literally a pen she writes with, not a computer or laptop or tablet. The fact that she uses a pen is part of her religious community’s commitment to live without technology as far as is possible in 2016. But Marianne still has the syndrome I have—the need to write about things to remember and make sense of them. Her descriptions of her toddlers’ antics, the funny sayings of her preschoolers, or the adventures of their older children are all the more valuable for her since, in their community, photographic images are not permitted. Written memories and descriptions can be just as special and treasured as a good photo.
Some amateur writers (and that’s not a judgment—just a recognition that we all start there) feel that the setting or moment has to be just right to write. It has to be a beautiful day, and you’re relaxing in a gorgeous setting, or you’ve just experienced the most profound thing, like bringing a new life into the world. Yes, these things are inspirational—but when you make your living writing, you can’t wait for inspiration to happen, or always be sitting by a tropical beach or impressive mountain.
As a full-time writer for most of my life, I can’t write only when stirred. If I’m not “feeling” particularly inspired, I must just plunge in anyway, writing down ideas, words, and sentences to prime the pump. You don’t let yourself worry about what it sounds like at first, knowing you’ll edit and improve in later rounds.
You also can’t wait until you have a whole free week or a day or even an hour to get started on a writing project; I often must grab 10 minutes before a meeting or before going home to just write a few words or a paragraph. That always feels better, to know I’ve broken the ice and begun!
Where do my ideas come from? If you’re a regular reader, you may recall last week I wrote about a sign I saw as I waited on a prescription—and that became a whole column. Here are some of the typical places I get inspiration from:
- Normal, everyday things that everyone experiences. Popular mommy bloggers take the diapers and the quarrels and the ho hum of daily life and share their family humanness to the great enjoyment of thousands.
- The unusual or even catastrophic: car accident, speeding ticket, relationship break-up (of course), fired from job, disastrous job interview, flat tire, flopped cake, applying for a driver’s license, moving—are all fodder to write about.
- Lines from sermons, TV, a sentence someone else wrote about, a story someone told you, a tweet, a Facebook post, a photo, lines from children—a sign in a pharmacy!
- Driving down the road is when I get many ideas. My brain is free to roam far and wide as I drive—carefully, I hope—and ideas often come. I try to write them down at the first traffic light or sometimes dictate notes into my phone.
- Sleeping—or trying to fall asleep—your brain often stumbles across memories, insights, conversations that may produce inspiration. (And yes, write those down, or they’ll be gone by morning.)
- But don’t let your brain race at night, or you’ll be awake for hours: do a “brain freeze” or put up a mental sign in your head that says “STOP!” That usually works for me.
These creative principles can apply to other art forms—where do artists get their ideas for their next painting? I admire one creative young woman from my church who, because of a chronic illness, has developed an inspiring part-time business called Ze’ez Handmades, making delightful knitted and crocheted stuffed animals, scarfs, hats, mittens, dolls—you name it, she’s probably thought of it. She looks at things and off she goes to create a new twist on it. That’s creativity!
Where do you get ideas? What arts, crafts, or other hobbies do you enjoy? I’d love to hear from you and share your creativity in a future column—with links to your website or Facebook page! Send to MelodieD@MennoMedia.org or Another Way, 1251 Virginia Avenue, Harrisonburg, VA 22802.