The Creative Potential Of Found Phrases

found phrases

Your next bit of brilliant text could be inspired by unexpected sources. Found phrases in music, crosswords, and daily life can be harnessed for your work.

A few years ago, I found myself in a midtown Manhattan conference room with a close friend. He and I were collaborating on a project that was, for reasons sadly beyond our control, appearing increasingly doomed. We were there to teleconference with the project’s main team members, and as the volume and intensity of their squabbles increased dramatically within minutes of the meeting commencing, I typed “wow, bullshit started early” into the Notes app on my phone and showed it to my friend.

At the time, the phrase was good for a discreet laugh and commiseration. Then I completely forgot that I had written it.

Months later, when I was well into my current novel-in-progress (written almost exclusively on my phone, as described in “The Accidental Novelist — How Stolen Moments Can Make A Book“), I randomly pulled up that same note and laughed out loud when I read it — partly because of its blunt, irreverent, and semi-mysterious message; partly because I remembered the cringe-worthy meeting; and partly because it piqued my interest in terms of my creative writing.

I imagined seeing that phrase divorced of all context and thought of all the questions it inspired. Who was saying it and why? What exactly was the “bullshit” he or she was referring to and why was it starting early? Was bullshit expected, but not until later? I decided to begin answering those questions with characters and events from my novel-in-progress. Twenty minutes later, I had written the bones of one of my favorite chapters.

This is not something I could have planned or designed, but I’m grateful it happened. Not only did it spur the creation of a chapter I’m proud of, it also gave me ideas for finding future inspiration via found phrases in unexpected places.

Listen when you’re out and about

There are so many places to hear interesting and unexpected phrases that might inspire you — street corners, food stores, public transit, sporting events, bars and restaurants. Wherever you happen to be, keep an open ear and mind and take notes if something inspires you. This doesn’t mean purposefully snooping in on other people’s conversations; rather, just keep your ears open as you go about your day. If you happen to hear an evocative snippet of language, note it down as creative fodder your writing project.

Listen to kids

As they gain mastery over language, children can say amazing, unexpected, cryptic, evocative, poetic things. When you’re in the presence of kids, yours or someone else’s, pay attention and take notes. You may find yourself hearing a phrase that will inspire your next poem, chapter, story, or novel.

Listen to politicians

Political debates, speeches, and commentary can contain transcendent language, manipulative imagery, uniquely mangled syntax, brutally twisted logic, and a whole lot more. All of it can raise intriguing questions when you purposefully take sentences and phrases out of context. Isolate some political language that grabs your interest, look at it in isolation, and fill in the gaps with your own creativity.

Listen to music

Song lyrics, opera librettos, hymns — all can be the source of unique and question-provoking phrases. I encourage you to look beyond the most obvious music-sourced words that everyone knows and find something more obscure that fills you with ideas.

Creatively translate

If you’re looking for inspiration, messing with Google Translate yields interesting results. For kicks, I entered the Jimi Hendrix lyric, “Excuse me while I kiss the sky,” translated it via Google Translate into Portuguese (“Desculpe-me enquanto beijo o céu”), translated that into Korean, (“haneul-e kiseuhaneun dong-an sillyehabnida”), and then translated the result back into English. The result? “Excuse me while kissing in the sky.” This isn’t hugely different from the original phrase, but it is a unique construction and inspires plenty of questions when seen on its own — who is kissing in the sky, what does kissing in the sky look like, how does one do it, and why does it need excusing? Plenty of creative fuel there to spark some interesting writing.

Look at crossword puzzles

Crossword clues and answers can be clever and intriguing — or obscure and frustrating. Regardless, if you’re looking for inspiration, glance through crossword puzzles and see if an unusually phrased clue grabs your attention and makes you ask questions.

One disclaimer — in my own example of leveraging an inspiring found phrase, I used a quote that I had come up with myself and published or shared nowhere; the chance or threat of plagiarizing was zero.

If you’re using someone else’s song lyric, speech quote, or other published or broadcast phrase, proceed with caution. Avoid using it word for word without proper attribution or permission, or consider changing some aspect of the phrase just enough to make it your own. You can also place whatever found phrase you’re writing at the top of your page for inspiration — and then simply erase it when you’re done. All that will be left is your own original work.

Do you find inspiration in found phrases? Tell us how in the comments below!

Keywords Guide

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  1. I came up with the line: ‘Shun the lies of friends and seek the truth of strangers’. I thought it must be a quote from someone but was unable to find it in any book of quotations. It is the first line of my WIP novel,

  2. Michael in NYC, Thank you for this encouraging post. I hope you are staying safe. May the plague pass-over you. Two things for your consideration…when I moved down to Virginia from New York, I fell-in with the carpenters and plasterers who spoke a fabulous patois of dialects and accents that stuck easily in my Yankee brain. The bricklayer “carried his old woman over to make groceries…” Even after many years in the south, I still like sitting in a booth at some little café out in the boonies, acting like I’m reading or some quiet activity. I usually over-hear things that have promise for the page. I also use a proverb generator to spark poetical thinking: Many are called but few are chosen-Many are cold but few are frozen-Many are brass, but few are brazen-Many are crass but few are craven… usually it’s no more than brain exercise, but there are times, as you said, when I find a nugget that didn’t come out of the kitty litter. Blessings to you, from Jay in VA.


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