Put Yourself in the Path of Inspiration

I cringe every time I hear the phase, “writer’s block.”  Gives me shivers and makes me itch all over.  Those two words used to be my favorite reason for not writing, “I’ve got writer’s block.” Those blocks could go on for years before I’d get back into a writing ‘mood.’  Sometimes I hear people say that they aren’t creative or that they’ve run out of ideas.  I get that, sometimes I don’t have any ideas either, but I don’t let that get in the way of writing activities.

You’ll often hear the phrase, “Writers write.”  Well, that’s true – mostly.  While writers are expected to turn out words on the page there are other things that need to be done before and after writing.

A simple analogy would be my other hobby, woodworking.  Think about building something from wood, say a box.  There are a number of steps that need to happen.  First a drawing is needed.  Then I have to get the wood, glue, finish, nails, screws, sandpaper, and other things.  Then I go to the workshop.  I’ll cut, sand, glue, nail and paint until I have my finished box.  Then I’ll likely show my finished box to my wife, some friends and brag about it at my woodworking club meeting.  It’s also possible that I’ll take some pictures of it and post it on my blog.

So what part of all that is “woodworking?”  Yes, all of it is.

Same is true with writing.  There are many parts.  There’s research, editing, revising, writing, posting to the blog, working with editors, and planning the publicity tour for your next best seller.  Come on, we can dream here.

Perhaps the most over looked part of writing is getting the idea for your story.  Often inspiration is considered a passive activity.  Some people think, as I used to, that you just go about life and suddenly a great idea will smack you upside the head and whamo you’re on the best seller list.

It doesn’t work that way and is the number one cause of writer’s block: sitting on your backside waiting for inspiration.  Becoming inspired and finding good ideas are proactive tasks.  You have to go searching for it and it takes some work.

In 1987 I found a book, Writer’s Block and How to Use It, by Victoria Nelson.  I think this one is currently out of print and the only thing I really remember about it is the title.  The title does hold the basis for how I think about writing now – if you’re blocked, use it, be active about your creativity.

After reading this book, I’d do things like free writing or reading books about writing – anything that would just get my fingers typing on the keyboard.  I also found during this time that often I get blocked on a piece of writing because of the emotions that the writing is generating in me – especially anything that is autobiographical. This is a time when I find spending time writing about why I am blocked, helps.

There are times though when we are truly empty inside and don’t have the creative energy to write anything. It’s times like this when I think of Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way and her concept of breathing in.  The idea is that in order to spend energy creating something, first you have to gather in creative energy.  You do this in a number of ways.  Take a walk, hike, ride a bike, anything physical that allows you to let your mind just rest.  You should read books, watch movies, see plays and so on. Have a coffee with a friend, or go to a poetry reading. Go to art shows, concerts, museums – anyplace where you’ll find things that inspire you.  This is the act of breathing in.

As you experience the creativity of others, or of nature, you’ll fill up your creative self with energy, inspiration and lots of ideas.  After you’ve been somewhere take a moment to write about what you’ve seen, felt and experienced.  I am willing to bet that the words will just flow.

Which brings me to a book I found last year in an art museum’s gift shop, Steal Like an Artist, 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by Austin Kleon.

If you spend any time in the halls of your local university studying literary criticism, you’ll eventual despair as you begin to realize that all literature and indeed most creative works are really derivative.  Ideas build on each other and as it’s been said so many times, “It’s all been done before.”

Look at your favorite stories and movies in depth and you’ll find they are really just clever rearrangements of existing ideas.   Just think of the Harry Potter books and how much of that world we’ve seen in other places.  Witches, wizards, dragons, trolls, dark magic trying to take over the world and the young reluctant hero who has to save us.  How many times have we heard that story?

Yet JK Rowling added one interesting twist, “What if there was a school for magic that looked like an English Public School?”  And then wow, that one spark and we have a compelling story.

Kleon’s book starts out by asking, “Were do artists get their ideas?” The answer is, “They steal them.”  He then goes on to talk about some of the great ways we can be creative.  Things like have side projects, hobbies, be boring (let your mind rest), share your work, steal ideas properly, and write what you like.

Being consistently creative is really about putting yourself into the path of inspiration by looking at all the creative things around you, stealing the best parts and figuring out how to put those together in new ways.

And just so you  know, I stole most of this post from the three books I mentioned.

The Writers Circle: Inspiring Words

One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

As writers, there is often a time where we lose focus and lose our confidence.  This is especially true for young, inexperienced writers. Today let’s discuss how we can find inspiration when we need it and how we can (and do) work to inspire others to find their creative stride. 

Let’s discuss this in the comments or on the forums and see what our community thinks.

Interview with Author Alison Boulton

Years ago, I discovered a book called Tom’s Daughters on a writing website and it was so good that I bought a version when it was self-published. It was the first e-book I ever purchased and remains one of the best I’ve read. I still remember the characters like they were real people. So when I heard that the author, Alison Boulton, was publishing a second novel – I jumped at the chance to do an interview.

KO: What did you learn about self-publishing from your first book? How are things different this time around?

AB: An acquaintance suggested that he helped me self-publish Tom’s Daughters as an e-book to see if he could ‘make us both a fortune.’ I was happy to accept this as it hadn’t been picked up despite being sent to numerous agents. I wasn’t comfortable negotiating the formatting and the technical stuff required to put in on Amazon for Kindle. He also did the cover from a photo I provided and set up a website. I think the deal was that he got 25% of revenues. The downside was that when sales were slow he lost interest and I got frustrated nagging for information and at not having control to update accounts myself.

This time round I wanted control from the beginning, and I also wanted a book that I could hold in my hand. I’ll put it on Kindle later, of course, but having the paperback makes publication and being a writer feel much more real. I think other people’s reactions have been more positive too.

KO: Where do you get your story inspiration from?

AB: For me a story starts with an image or a couple of images that are linked in some way. With Tom’s Daughters I wanted to write about sisters, but there was also the picture of a young woman with a small child in North London. The issue of the mysterious father was hovering in the background.

With Chasing Sunflowers it was again the image of a child, this time a boy, painting sunflowers for his mother. It was clear they were in Amsterdam where I also lived for a few years, and that the mother was lonely.

I then have to sit and try and work out the bones of a plot. Sometimes I write random scenes or conversations. Chasing Sunflowers was written first as a short story, but then it slowly grew into a novel, changing and developing in the process. The actual ending was the last thing to become clear.

KO: What kind of writer are you? Do you plot everything out before writing or does it evolve throughout the process? Do you force yourself to write every day? How long does it take to write a novel?

AB: The writing definitely evolves, but there has to be a certain amount of plotting too, plus a timeline of events. It always takes me a while at the beginning to sort dates out – how old was that character when this happened, etc.? And some thought must go into how the threads of the story entwine and unfold to keep the reader interested. There should, I think, always be some sort of denouement at the end. And I don’t really like sad endings, so I haven’t written one yet!

And it takes me ages to finish a novel, maybe even two or three years, because other stuff – like teaching and running our holiday complex – get in the way. I have to earn a living, unfortunately. I’m hoping the next one, currently called The Red Balloon, will be quicker though. And I do try to at least look at it every day but I don’t always succeed.

KO: Tell us about Chasing Sunflowers. Who is your audience?

AB: Chasing Sunflowers is the story of Kate, who moves to Amsterdam with her husband and young son. Lost and lonely in a new city, she develops a passion for the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. Her decision to study them leads her to artist Rudy de Jong and following in Vincent’s footsteps, she makes a trip to Arles which transforms her life.

So, it’s a book about a woman who steps outside her own life, and how the experience changes her. There’s quite a lot about Amsterdam, the south of France and Vincent van Gogh too.

My first audience is me, since it was me I told the story to first and I liked it. So after that people a bit like me, I suppose; usually female, maybe over 25, though my daughters who are 20 and 22 enjoyed it too.

KO: What are your favorite books?

AB: I mostly read books about ‘real’ people and characters in plausible situations. I’m not a fan of Magic Realism or Fantasy novels. I hate anything sensationalist, badly written or too soppy. I love Ian McEwan, AS Byatt, Anne Tyler, and Doris Lessing amongst many others. Some of Lessing’s writing is futuristic, but then I love the prophetic nature of her work. Also EM Forster; I always say Howards End is my favourite book. I don’t know if it’s really true but it’s definitely up there.

KO: Alison, thanks so much for sharing and best of luck with the new book.

Storms and Drought

Weather and writing. More generally, weather and creativity. They are inextricably linked together through metaphor.

Throwing out ideas is a Brainstorm.

Ideas come in a flood—or sometimes a torrent.

Ideas come out of nowhere like a bolt of lightning.

Weather seems a particularly apt analogy for creativity. They both seem out of our control—random even. While weather forecasting has given us more lead time to react to weather, we still have no actions to control the air and water around us. When ideas come we are similarly expected—and we’re generally happy—to simply weather the storm.

While there are tips and tricks to keep the creative stream flowing—write every day at the same time, use handwriting in a journal to warm up, etc—we have all been struck down by writers’ block from time to time.

There’s weather for that, too.

Ideas dry up.

A chronic lack of ideas is a drought—or somewhat less frequently, a depression.

If you’re stuck in a rut and can’t get out, you’re in the doldrums¹.

While not universal, the tendency to relate our creativity to natural phenomenon is certainly widespread—cutting across several languages, and not limited to the cultures that spread out from Europe.

This close metaphorical tie has an interesting side effect. With weather there is no shortage of terms for describing when weather goes wrong, yet there’s a dearth of terms for nice things like a pleasant, sunny day, with a short rain shower for good measure. Similarly, there are few elegant ways to describe the condition of having just the right balance between new ideas and the time to explore those ideas.

This is all scene setting for the situation I’ve found myself in. While I’m not swimming in free time, I do have some. But when I sit down to write, I find myself tilling the dry, crumbly ground for even the hint of an idea.



¹ Doldrums refers to those parts of the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans affected by a low-pressure area around the equator where the prevailing winds are calm. The doldrums are noted for calm periods when the winds disappear altogether, trapping sail-powered boats for periods of days or weeks (paraphrased from Wikipedia).

Just for Fun: Inspiration

Today let’s discuss where you got the idea for your current work in progress or for any of the stories, poems, scripts or novels you’ve written.  Did it come to you in a dream?  Was it something embarrassing your child said in front of your boss one day? Was it inspired by someone you know or something you experienced in real life?  Did an advanced alien race implant the idea in your mind before you were born, leaving it to grow and flourish until just the right time?

Whatever the inspiration was, leave a comment here to discuss it or add a topic into the Cafe on our new discussion forums!

The Writers Circle: The Creative Spark

One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

Several of the posts on Today’s Author this month have focused on creativity. Today we’d like to hear from you about ways you kick start your creativity. Do you take a long walk on a snowy day? Do you sit in a coffee shop and people watch?  Do you dig in the dirt to see what you find to write about?  What methods do you use to find a bit of a creative spark when you need a new idea or just want to write something new?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

The stories all around us

bathroomladderWe are in the midst of remodeling the bathroom (the only bathroom) in our house.  Like anyone who owns an old home, I had my fears about this project — what horrors would we find with the plumbing or the electric or the subfloors or the joists or the structure. In fact, the first day of the project, every time the contractor came out to get something I assumed it was the time he was going to say, “Sir… we’ve gotta talk…” and then proceed to show me that the room was held together with toothpicks and superglue.

Thankfully, that conversation hasn’t happened (so far, though we’re almost done so I think we’re okay).  What did happen, though, is that opening the walls, ceiling and flooring of the bathroom opened up a history that we had previously not known. It also  opened up a set of possibilities for us to come up with some quite interesting stories about what we found.

First… there was the ladder.  We opened up a wall which seemed from the outside to be just empty space.  Inside, we found an old, wooden ladder.  What is that ladder’s story?  Why was it left in the wall? Was it there for safekeeping, locked away for “a rainy day”?  Was it placed there absentmindedly and then ignored as the plasterboard was put up? Was it the only thing that was holding that portion of the house up at some point (goodness, I sure hope that isn’t the case!)?

Then there was the insulation. Apparently, the best insulation around was newspaper. As we touched it, it disintegrated immediately, turning into dust right in our fingers because, apparently, newspaper really isn’t all that good to use as insulation.  I was able to gently pull one sheet of newspaper out of the ceiling and it stayed intact long enough for me to see the date — December 29, 1963.  So, we learned that the last time this room had work done on it was 51 years ago. Imagine what we might have been able to discover about an era long ago had those newspapers been just a tiny bit more stable. We could have read the articles and learned about the local politics of the day, or the national and world news the local paper thought was important.  What if every home used the ceilings and walls of its bathroom as a time capsule and through this method of archival a society’s entire history was recorded? Wouldn’t that be interesting?

Next, we found a wall full of razor blades. Now, this explained a few things for me, specifically why I would find random old, rusty razorblades in the basement every so often over the past twenty years.  But more importantly, I learned something.  I had not known that they used to put a slot in medicine cabinets into which old razors were discarded.  Apparently, this was common and when you were done with the razor you would stick it in the slot and it would “magically disappear”.  Well, now I know where the razors re-appeared.  But imagine if such a technology did exist…stick your unwanted stuff in a slot and have it whisked magically away… perhaps re-appearing in a similar slot somewhere else where a person may need the item, or perhaps just falling away into a landfill (or my bathroom wall).

This remodeling job has provided the seeds for a lot of stories. Perhaps my 2014 NaNoWriMo novel has been waiting in the walls of that room for the past 51 years.  We cleaned up everything we found there in those walls and we’ve sealed it up nice again, but I wonder if in another 51 years someone will open these same walls up and learn something new about life in 2014, or find a new set of stories to tell.  The biggest thing this job has done for me creatively is reminded me once again that there are millions of stories to be told, all of them sitting there waiting to be discovered in the things we do and encounter everyday but don’t think twice about.  So, what’s your every-day normal world telling you to write about today?  I’d bet if you look carefully, you’ll find some really exciting stories to tell.

Dumpster Diving

Dumpster DivingDecades ago I took a university writing class with a respected and much lauded professor who rattled off a list of rules that all good writers must absorb as the writer’s bible, and then declared why none of us undergrads would meet his requirements even if we conformed. My penned notes on his first lecture filled many lined pages with not a single doodle enhancing the margins. The papers were creased with the sweat of my hands as I’d written, the ink smudged by the nervous energy of trying to listen attentively and commit every significant comment to the notebook. For posterity, for future reference, for guidance in my lame efforts to become a writer. His final words, actually even his very first words, were that he’d like to see far fewer faces at the next lecture because we were not the students he wanted to teach.

At the end of his class, I walked out of the room with my head reeling, a sense of illness brought on by the knowledge that the previous four years of college pursuit were a total waste of time. As he’d accused, though he’d addressed the entire room of 40 or so upper level students, I was unqualified to ever attempt to write a story, so ignorant that I couldn’t function within the narrow corridor of competence as he’d described. I couldn’t live by his rules because I was already a total failure. He spoke to all of us but I took it personally. He spoke to me.

The dizzying buzz in my brain assured me that I was as incompetent as he’d expected me to be, that his initial evaluation after calling my name from the attendance record confirmed his suspicion that I would never live up to anyone’s expectations of successful writer – or successful anything. Perhaps dumpster diving might suit me. At least then I had the potential of dredging up something useful from the bottom of the bin, something practical for the life of a loser. That’s what he expected of me, of all of us. It was that class, so late in my long years of attending college, and a few rejection letters (that I’d been warned I should expect for the few stories I’d submitted for publication consideration, rejections being the norm for new writers) that convinced me I didn’t have the right stuff. That I didn’t have the write stuff to be a writer. With only this final semester of college before I could graduate, my credits hovering on the maybe-not-enough-units line, and a bank account that couldn’t support one more semester to make up a failed attempt, I dropped his class. Frantic rearrangement of department allocations for a few of my classes, and I did manage to graduate “on time,” but my wobbly confidence fell over the cliff. After college I did little to pursue writing as an actual career and eventually created a measure of success in another field.

How many of us who wanted to become someone – a ballerina, a rocket scientist, an inventor, an ambassador on behalf of our country – found ourselves waylaid by the doubt of stepping outside the hallowed halls of university and encountering the real world of looming bills, demanding employers, and sewers to be cleaned? I wasn’t the first, the only, the last. It took me decades to understand that the famous professor’s clever manipulation of an apprehensive young woman produced exactly what he wanted me to become: someone whose papers he didn’t have to read or grade. I was what he’d nurtured: a drop out and a failure. I was also what I’d nurtured: a fool cowering at the bottom of a dumpster.

But what the famous professor didn’t count on was that I would scrabble from the dumpster and gather myself as a person of merit. He didn’t consider that I’d have something more than his rigid rules or qualifications to measure success. I have passion about what I do, what I write. Passion carried me through a whole crapload of insecurity. I survived a latent start to surface from the dregs of the bin to make a person out of the nervous aura of the student. I’d never been a brilliant prodigy but I’ve always been resilient. And I’d always been passionate about who I was, what I might become.

Nearly 12 years ago I resurrected my dormant desire to write. I wrote with a frenzy, stimulated by then-current needs to change who I was, and an aged longing to do what I felt I should have done with my life. Late at night the computer glowed and hummed, helping me craft and hoard my novels. When I wasn’t near the boxy beast, I thought writing and kept penned notes about what to revise, what to write next. The excitement of my childhood, of my early college years when I envisioned becoming the next great Dickens (Charlotte, of course,) enervated me. I’m encumbered by practical needs and responsibilities, all the everyday necessities that get in the way of a creative life – like most of us –  but nothing can stop me writing now.

I finally learned what a smarter student would have learned in that first class: an indifferent teacher cannot make me a bad writer. Only I can do that. Likewise, only I can make myself a good writer. The rules may assist or impede but if I write with passion, ain’t nothing gonna get in my way, baby. Put that in your cup and stir it up, drink it down, and get outta my way. I am a writer. That took a very long breath and a voice from deep in my diaphragm, but, there, I’ve said it: I am a writer.

And here’s the coup de grace: I can no longer remember the name of that luminous college professor.

Be well, friends.

The Writers Circle: When Inspiration Doesn’t Strike

One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

Writers often experience times where the ideas just aren’t flowing well (or at all).  Today we’d like to discuss how you have dealt with these droughts and what you did or do to break out of them when they occur. Do you sit at the computer and just write… anything… to get the words flowing?  Do you change media and write by hand for a while? Do you go out to a different coffee shop to seek inspiration?  Let’s discuss what has worked, what hasn’t worked and what you might consider trying the next time you encounter a bump in the creative road. 

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

Who Is That Person?

It is 5:31am on a Thursday morning and I am sitting in my local Starbucks.  I’ve already been to the gym, I’ve already kicked off a process that will take some time at work and I’m part-way through my first cup of coffee of the day. But more importantly, I have my laptop open and on it I have my “Writer’s File”, as Annie described it yesterday, open. I’m sitting here, watching people come in and out. I’m listening to what they order, sure, but more importantly I’m listening to how they order.  If they come in with someone else, I’m listening to how they interact with each other.

My little Writer’s File has been neglected for a while. It is a bit of a mess, really.  But today, it’s getting a lot of new character information, such as:

  • The businesswoman who forgot to remove her sunglasses when she came in, and just walked into another customer she appears not to have seen.  Did she stay out partying last night and the sunglasses are masking that look from her eyes?  Was she up all night with a sick relative? Did she just fly in from the west coast?
  • The “regular”, who expects that whomever is behind the counter they will know what the order is… and then gets upset when there is a new barrista waiting for him to tell her what he would like this morning.  Is he like this at home and/or in the office, too?
  • The lab technician or nurse who meandered in — is she coming off her night shift or gearing up for her work day?
  • The barrista who appears to be enjoying her work today… when I commented that she seemed “peppy” today, she said, “It’s my Friday, so why wouldn’t I be peppy?”
  • The patron who is here every day with a new business venture he is trying. He’s been in construction, solar electric installations, personal fitness training, home design and sunglasses.  What is his plan today for his next business venture? Did he supply that businesswoman with her sunglasses?  Did he stop putting a logo on the side of his truck because he kept needing to change it, or is he simply designing the next logo and will put it on next week?

My coffee is nearly done and I have added a good dozen characters to my Writer’s File.  Some will never go anywhere in any of my stories, but the effort of writing them down, describing their looks, their personalities, their interaction skills and even their preferences for early-morning beverages is a good workout for my creative muscles.  And as I sit here and get to know all these strangers around me, some of whom I see every day and some I’ve seen for the first time and may never see again, I once again realize that we have as many characters available to us as there are different people in the world. Our characters should be flawed.  They should bump into other people by accident, they should have rough mornings after staying up all night.  They should have a preferred drink and a morning routine.  Not all of these details need to be included in our stories, of course, but they need to be included in our characters so that they can make our stories richer, deeper and more realistic and interesting.

So, look around you today. Write down a few notes about people you see coming and going.  Then let us know who you’ve met — who is that person you see across the way?