Inspiration — how do you find it? Frequent questions

Q: How do you find inspiration?
A: Don’t look.

Remember your last break-up? You were so completely over whatever slice of humanity you get romantic with that you told all your friends NEVER AGAIN!

And no matter who you were talking to—your BFF or your bartender or the lady at church—you always got some variation on the same response: “When you’re not looking, that’s always when you find The One.” In my book, that’s one of the most annoying things anyone can say. Right behind “Get over it.”

Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is, you can find inspiration. The bad news: inspiration is a lot like your next sweetheart. If you want to find it, you have to stop looking.

Don’t wait for inspiration: Just write.

Playwright María Irene Fornés taught me about inspiration

María Irene Fornés

I once took a class with the playwright María Irene Fornés. She told us when she was a young woman in New York City, her roommate wanted to be a writer. But instead of writing, the woman would go out partying (that’s how I recall the story—it was a while ago).

Irene intercepted her roommate one night and sat her down at the kitchen table. She gave her the nearest book—a cookbook—and told her she wasn’t allowed to leave the house until she’d written something using a word starting with the first letter of every line, or something like that. The roommate soon found herself writing. And she kept on writing for decades. How do I know? She was Susan Sontag.

One day Irene had our class walk around the room. She told us to find something to look at and start writing. I remember staring at a knot in the wood paneling and writing about my friend Emily emerging from her parents’ coat closet wearing a whole peacock on her head.

Now, the knot in that wood didn’t remind me of Emily or of the amazing taxidermied peacock hat. But staring at it allowed me to access that part of my brain where the memory lived. And that was enough to get me writing.

I created the prompt for Day 2 of the Jumpstart writing challenge in memory of Irene’s Susan Sontag story. And the results, so far, have been all I could hope for. Someone who wrote about business yesterday turned in perfectly respectable passages from a mystery novel. And he said he’d never written fiction before. Other people have turned the prompt into memoir; still another found a way to work it into the business marketing she’s creating.

Inspiration is just a tool

I learned from Irene that “inspiration” doesn’t exist. Or maybe that it does, but it’s not something separate and apart from us. In fact, it’s everywhere.

And it’s not a prerequisite for writing. It’s just a tool to help us get going.

Now, I’m not saying you never need inspiration—I doubt Susan Sontag’s cookbook-inspired work ever won an award. But don’t get stuck thinking you need to have a great idea before you start writing.

The great ideas only reveal themselves when they’re ready. Just like it may take a couple of dates before that person you’d sworn not to go out with—because you’re not looking for romance, remember?—turns out to be The One.

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  • One comment on “Inspiration — how do you find it? Frequent questions

    1. Janice on

      Thanks for this, Elaine! It’s a revelation to me, and I experienced exactly what you described about the Day 2 prompt. It took me somewhere totally unexpected, and opened up a much-needed thought passageway for me.

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