Inspiration is a slippery thing, impossible to catch when you’re trying and ironically, easiest to catch when you’re really, really busy doing something else. About a year after Click Clack Moo was published, I decided it was time to take a leap of faith. I was an attorney at the time working long days and plenty of weekends to boot. I wanted to pursue writing as my career, so I finally quit my day job and shortly thereafter, we moved out of the city and out (well, up, actually)
to the suburbs. I was going to write all day. All night if I wanted to! I had my own office in the house, I had plenty of writing time. Noday job to get in my way! I sat and I sat and I sat – and I thought and I thought and I thought and I waited and waited and waited. You know what never showed up? INSPIRATION. I didn’t write a thing for almost a year. DIDN’T WRITE A THING. I had written so much more when I was working long hours and always pressed for time. Oddly, inspiration struck when I had no time for it back then. WHAT? NOW? A story about a worm?? It’s 1:00 a.m. and I have a brief due tomorrow! But when your brain is working, its working overtime. The harder I worked at my day job, the more my brain was spinning with ideas.
What I learned in The Year of Not Writing (besides that we really should move back to the city), was that more often than not, inspiration shows up in the work. I write every single day. I absolutely do not write well every single day. In fact, I rarely do. Ninety percent of what I write is unusable. Horrible. Hideous. Embarrassingly bad. Boring. Unoriginal. Most of it will never see the light of day. But if I wait for inspiration, they will find my rotting corpse hunched over my desk and a blank screen on my computer. Which came first – the inspiration or the work? Very rarely, for me at least, it’s the inspiration. Usually, the uninspired work comes first and somewhere in the first draft or third draft or 18thdraft, something from that work stands out, pops out, screams for attention. That’s the inspiration. Only you have to write it first. So frustrating!!
Where to start? Anywhere. I’m an introvert – so I’m listening way more than I’m talking – which is helpful. If you are chatting on your cell phone, or sitting near me on the F train, or at the next table in a restaurant… I’m eavesdropping. Bits of things, pieces of things are the best. Almost anything taken out of context can be a great story starter, title, or dialogue. I’m also partially deaf, so I mishearthings all the time – which also makes for strange word pairings in my brain (and plenty of awkward conversations, which is okay, because of the introvert thing – I’m used to it.). Mistakes are great inspirations. Embarrassment is great inspiration. Fear excels at the art of inspiration. If you are not lucky enough to be a hard-of-hearing introvert, re-write an old idea. Write about a time you were deeply embarrassed or scared to death. Write about what you wished you had said in a recent awkward conversation, instead of what actually came out of your mouth (maybe that’s just me).
In the heart of every story is conflict – or a problem. Find yours. Use yours. Give your problems away to your characters. See what they do with them. If you can’t come up with a character, use a stand-in. Here, squirrel, here’s my problem. I’m afraid of ________. Just start writing the story about the squirrel afraid of public speaking – even though this would seem to fall into the category of a problem with little consequence for a squirrel. Just write it. Ninety percent of it will be unusable, hideous, boring, nonsensical. But it will start you down a path where you don’t know what’s coming. That’s where you want to be. That’s where inspiration likes to hang out.
When I die, some poor soul will come along and have to dig through my office. If I was alive, I’d be mortified at how many bad ideas, bad writing, and manuscripts completely lacking in originality will be unearthed. That’s the work. Maybe it will inspire somebody…