Finding Writing Inspiration

animation of young woman finding writing inspiration with ideas floating out of her head

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

The idea, drawn from Greek mythology, is that all creative inspiration springs from muses, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. The notion has persisted for centuries and it has become firmly entrenched in artistic circles to the point of becoming a cliché.

For example, if you read anything about Irish poet William Butler Yeats, you’ll no-doubt find mention of Maud Gonne as his long-time muse. Unrequited love being a perennial theme in Yeats’ poems, Gonne qualifies on that score, having rebuffed several marital proposals from Yeats.

If you’re not yet ready to sacrifice a goat to invoke a muse — ensuring instant success for your next writing project — what other ways are there to find writing inspiration for your work?

Personal life experiences

Your life and personal experiences might seem routine to you, but it is likely that some part of growing up, becoming an adult, and struggling to find a place in the world can be the fruitful kernel at the heart of a universal story.

The experiences may be semi-autobiographical. James Herriot (aka James Alfred Wight) penned a series of stories collected under the title All Creatures Great and Small based on his experience as a country veterinarian in rural England. The stories are loosely linked to real experiences, but the town, character names, and experiences are fictionalized.

George Orwell’s Animal Farm draws on his experiences during participation in the Spanish Civil War, as he saw first-hand the mechanisms by which propaganda, the suppression of dissent, and the betrayal of socialist ideas by Stalinist communists was applied. Orwell anthropomorphized animals based on his experiences of farm life at his grandparent’s farm in Sussex. His familiarity with the Russian Revolution of 1917 gave him insights and understanding of the dynamics of power and politics.

Maya Angelou confirmed that her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, contain accounts of her experiences between the ages of three and sixteen, though details and characters are fictionalized. Angelou admitted compressing some of the timelines and taking artistic license with the book, but much of the biographical information parallels Angelou’s own biography.

Writing inspiration can even come from blurring the line between memoir and fiction. Penned as a memoir revealing the chaos and craziness of his upbringing and early life, Augusten Burroughs (known as Chris Robison in his youth) successfully combined a comic style and zany characters in his book Running with Scissors, but his memories didn’t jive with the memories of others. The book became a best seller, but his mother stopped speaking with him after publication, and the Turcotte family launched a defamation lawsuit for the manner in which they were depicted in it. Memories can be an inspiration for writing, but memories can also dance around the truth in different ways (as pointed out in this NPR piece).

Let your imagination run loose

It might be that letting ideas flow freely from the subconscious can help generate creative and imaginative works. The technique of freewriting or automatic writing — without letting the conscious mind judge or intervene — lets the subconscious take control of the story flow.

Dreams are also often touted by writers as a source of inspiration. Stephen King commented:

So, where do the ideas — the salable ideas — come from. They come from my nightmares. Not the night-time variety, as a rule, but the ones that hide just behind the doorway that separates the conscious from the unconscious.

A fascinating psychology study by John Kounios and Mark Beeman demonstrated that the subconscious mind works on solving problems on its own while the conscious mind is doing something entirely different. Remember this mechanism the next time you are blocked trying to figure out how to handle a certain plot twist. Give your subconscious enough time and it will come up with a solution by itself in the background.

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Music, art, or cinema

Drawing from other creative pursuits or art forms can often be an effective way to spark writing inspiration and get the creative wheels rolling. In addition to works of writers you admire, try looking to painters, composers, or filmmakers for themes, styles, and approaches to art to stimulate your imagination and apply it to your own work.

Toni Morrison spoke of the strong influence that the music of Billy Holiday had on her. The press release when she won the Nobel Prize of Literature included this comment about the structure of her novel, Jazz:

Toni Morrison uses a device which is akin to the way that jazz itself is played. The book’s first lines provide a synopsis, and in reading the novel one becomes aware of a narrator who varies, embellishes and intensifies. The result is a richly complex, sensuously conveyed image of the events, the characters and moods.

Morrison was also inspired by the paintings of Jacob Lawrence, which touch pictorially on many of the same issues she presents in her books. The African American experience in America is captured in many paintings by Lawrence, including the “Migration Series,” the “John Brown Series,” and works that depict everyday life in Harlem.

Haruki Murakami injects numerous references from popular music into his novels, including Norwegian Wood and 1Q84. The protagonist in his novel Killing Commendatore is a portrait painter who spends months in the isolated home of a famous artist. The novel explores the power of painting to alter perceptions and underlies the magical realism direction of the story.

Being mindful and observing the world with open eyes

Charles Dickens built his career observing the world critically and writing about people who are often ignored in literature. His insights into the different levels of social strata generally invisible to the privileged classes gained the attention and interest of his readers.

Ann Patchett, in her recent novel Tom Lake and earlier works such as Bel Canto and Commonwealth, is skilled at building narratives around ordinary people and how they respond to the events that take place over a lifetime.

Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life traces the lives of four classmates trying to find their place in the world. The book received widespread critical acclaim and awards, including the 2015 Kirkus Prize for Fiction, and was shortlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize. To some degree, the story carried itself along once she started writing. Yanagihara described the writing process as “glorious as surfing; it felt like being carried aloft on something I couldn’t conjure but was lucky enough to have caught, if for just a moment.”

Immerse yourself in world building

Sometimes the inspiration for a book comes from the pure imaginative joy of creating something fresh and different — a world that exists only in the mind — and then populating it with cast of colorful characters. Fantasy writers such as Neil Gaiman and Martha Wells have the knack for convincingly building worlds that are rich and believable (as Gaiman did in Nevermore and Wells does in The Murderbot Diaries).

Science fiction writers Richard K. Morgan and Pierce Brown likewise think on an epic scale and somehow manage to assemble the intricate, multidimensional details that bring lengthy series to life (the Takeshi Kovacs novels and the Red Rising series, respectively).

Be open to writing inspiration

Pinpointing a single instance of inspiration isn’t always easy; writers typically pull from a combination of different sources. Make it a habit of being open to those sources that personally inspire you and then use the techniques that yield the best results to extend your creativity. Writing can be its own reward, so let your ideas and thoughts flow freely — with or without the assistance of a muse.

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