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Winslow Homer, A Huntsman and Dogs
Hunting for Inspiration

Jun 15, 2021

Inspiration can be fleeting, and its absence often evokes stronger reactions than its presence. Without it we, as writers, can feel frustrated, exasperated, feeble, and even impotent. Trying to grasp it can seem like attempting to hold sand in your hands. What you need to remember when feeling like this is: you are not alone. Everyone has moments where their imagination seems barren, their thoughts stumbling before they begin, or facing dead plateaus. We all know the desert of being uninspired, but we do not have to stay there.

It is easy to wallow in the insipid dust of this wilderness, waiting for inspiration to strike like a lightning bolt from a cloudless sky. But actually we should be hunting for inspiration. It doesn’t find us; we discover it.

Writers begin by writing what they know, mining their own lives for elements and features and characters and settings and emotions and incorporating them into the fictional worlds we define to create stories or poetry. When that somewhat limited well has been tapped, we look around and realise we are in the middle of the desert and our oasis has gone. Or so the mirage tells us. In reality, we have only used a tiny percentage of the water available; we just need a longer rope for our bucket to reach it. To do that, we need to go hunting.

Turning your mind’s eye on your own memories, and sifting through seemingly banal and often unthought-of moments of your personal history, will elicit snapshots of ideas that may or may not be useable. That anecdote—the one that might work as a verbal story to people who know you but wouldn’t hold up as a short story in its own right—might be the starting point. Rework it, change the characters, change the setting, change the ending, throw in a ‘what if?’ and see what comes out. That incident—the one that could’ve been a disaster but wasn’t—could be made into an incredible piece if you rewrite history. That argument—the one that you regret so much it makes you shudder just thinking about it—can become a heart-breaking seminal poem.

Pore over your own life and moments you have shared with others. Immerse yourself in your memories. Try sitting in silence, alone, closing your eyes and imagining yourself there. As well as seeing what you saw, listen to what you heard. Smell, taste, touch, live there in that moment. Let it soak into you, resurrect the emotions and thoughts you experienced, until you are all-but-there. Then change something. Control your memory, evolve it, turn it into a narrative, use it as a starting block. What if, instead of being a picnic in a park, you were in a capsule on the surface of Mars? What if, in addition to trying tequila for the first time, you also saw a ghost at that house party in your teens? What if, instead of listening, you had said what you really wanted to say during that altercation? Wind the idea up, then let it go and see which way it travels.

Dreams are a regularly overlooked resource. By no means am I suggesting you tell your dreams as stories—we’ve all heard people recounting their dreams and they are dull—but by using elements from them, even just feelings or unspoken senses, and combining imagery and a bit of fiction, a blank page can become a strange and wonderful scene. Work that into a larger narrative, track back to a starting point, follow on to the end, then revise and edit to both foreshadow and bring about some form of arc.

Routine can stifle inspiration, so change it. Go for a walk, visit somewhere, watch a different TV channel or read a book outside your usual genre. Eat unusual food, stay up late or get up early, alter your life somehow so you see things from a slightly different perspective. It is amazing how much variation there is in life when observed from an alternative viewpoint. As such, watch other people. Imagine yourself as them—not in their shoes, but literally as them—and see the world how they do. Look up moments in history and try and witness them from the angle of someone in the middle of the situation, and then change the situation and write what they now see. Shake up your vision and you will see anew.

Spending time with other people who are actively creating will nourish your mind. Whether authors, poets, artists, musicians, filmmakers, playwrights, whatever; creativity and enthusiasm are infectious, just like smiling and yawning. Being around passionate people brings out the passion in yourself, as long as you let it. Stay open-minded and embrace the opportunities that present themselves or, even better, seek them out. Challenge yourself to try something new, to experience something new, to imagine something new, to write something new.

Borrow from the people you know. Take elements of people’s lives, the stories they tell or feelings they convey, and rewrite them. In the same way you can mine your own life, you can also mine the lives of the people around you. It is sensible to disguise and alter and manipulate and change what you are borrowing so much that it becomes unrecognisable to that individual—or to anyone else—but the initial concept can be taken on loan. By the time you are finished with it, it will be its own entity, and the person from whom you borrowed it can have it back none-the-wiser.

By looking both inwardly and outwardly with a fresh perspective, you will realise that you are not in a desert at all, but a lush green forest full of ripe inspiration that can be plucked. The secret to keeping it there is to water it regularly by looking beyond your immediate self and using a longer rope to reach deeper into your well. There is no such thing as no inspiration, there is only the perspective from which you are looking. Change that, however you can, and you will see things a lot differently.

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