When it comes to writing, inspiration can be controversial. Some people staunchly believe we shouldn’t need inspiration to write. We must sit down at our desks and get to work—whether the muse is available or not.
Others believe we need to coax, entice and nurture the muse—and if she’s away, it’s best to leave writing to another day. And still others would roll their eyes at me for using the word “muse” in the first place.
The great thing is that everyone has a different take on inspiration—opinions that can be quite inspiring. Which is why I asked various authors to share their thoughts. Below you’ll find a variety of invaluable ideas and insights.
When the muse sleeps, do something else.
“When my muse is unresponsive, there ain’t much I can do to wake her up,” said BJ Gallagher, author of over 30 books, including the forthcoming title Your Life Is Your Prayer (out in spring 2019). So she waits, and does other things in the meantime: She mows the lawn, washes the car, walks the dog, does laundry, has coffee with a friend, takes a shower, vacuums or takes a nap.
And these are the very activities—especially the physical ones—that help her muse to return.
“When my body is on auto-pilot doing routine physical things, my mind is free to drift and wander and explore. That is usually when my muse awakens and calls to me, ‘Grab a yellow legal pad, quick!’ And I write.”
KJ Dell’Antonia, author of the book How to Be a Happier Parent and co-host of the #AmWriting podcast, writes daily—whether she feels like writing or not. Even when it’s not going so well, she still keeps writing.
“I’ll boil it down to how many paragraphs does this need? How many sentences? How many words? And then I will put those things down, no matter how sorry and sad they seem, and most of the time, they’ll spark something. I’ll write something I like. It will start to flow. And if it doesn’t, that’s OK. I’ll be here tomorrow, folks. I’ll be here all week.”
Jane Binns, an artist and author of the forthcoming memoir Broken Whole, has found the same to be true. “Writing steadily is inspiring all on its own. The ideas keep building and refining themselves and returning to this again and again is validating and self-fulfilling.”
Seek out alone time.
Joan Gelfand, author of several poetry collections, the upcoming novel Fear to Shred and You Can Be a Winning Writer, stays inspired by ensuring she has time alone to think. “It is when I give myself unstructured time that the muse comes to visit.”
She suggested making time every week for a date with yourself. For instance, that’s when you might take a walk, sit by the lake or visit a local place you’ve never been before.
Read different kinds of books.
Alexandra Brown, co-author of A Year Off: A Story About Traveling the World—and How to Make It Happen For You, draws inspiration from fiction. “With my writing planet generally orbiting the non-fiction sun, I am always in awe of someone’s ability to weave a truly remarkable story.”
Brown is currently re-reading—and being inspired by—The Elegance of the Hedgehog. “It reframes the way a person thinks of language. It’s so imaginative, philosophical and poetic. It also reminds you to never assume things about people because we’re all more complex than we seem.”
Binns reads novels from genres she normally wouldn’t pick up. “I like to read authors that challenge the convention of storytelling and observe how they get from point A to point Z. What devices do they use? Why do they suspend this or that detail until later? How do they keep the tension suspenseful?”
One of Binns’s favorites is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, “because I never knew who was speaking or where or when things were happening exactly. It’s almost entirely dialogue. I would think I had it figured out but then it shifted…Heart of Darkness reminded me of Ulysses which I read years ago. Both of these are written in ways I would never allow myself to do right now. I see them as examples of how to stretch into untraveled territory.”
This is another way Brown fills her inspiration cup. “Stepping into another culture, even if only for a day, can put you into an entirely new, often unknown, context, and there is nothing more inspiring than being witness to all the ways this world is unique, interesting and dynamic.”
You don’t have to travel to far-off places to be inspired. “Even if it’s just an hour’s drive away, there is so much to see when you get outside of your routine,” Brown said.
Binns also stays inspired by painting with watercolors. “It gives my mind a break from thoughts and words, and I can totally relax and muse about color, light, and shadow. I love how the proportion of water and paint mix for a certain effect. The water is messy and has a science all of its own. I love watching it drool into the nodules of cold press paper. There is only a certain amount of time that watercolor can be played with before it sets. That burden of making decisions quickly is a sharp contrast to writing where things can be revised endlessly.”
Get in the right state.
“Inspiration comes when you stop thinking, writing and creating from a place of stress,” said Greta Solomon, a writing coach, and the author of the forthcoming book Heart, Soul & Sass: Write Your Way to a Fully-Expressed Life. She noted that the optimum state for writing is to be alert and completely relaxed, which is when our brainwaves are operating from an alpha state.
One way we can boost this alpha energy is to listen to music at 60 beats per minute (BPM), she said. “Research has shown that Baroque music can help learning, thinking and creativity because it pulses at this magic number.”
Solomon suggested doing a quick Google search or downloading a Spotify 60-BPM playlist.
In addition to listening to music, we can make our own. For instance, Binns plays the piano. “The mathematics and poetry of music opens doors in my brain that nurture sanity, allowing the world around me to make sense.”
As always, whether it has to do with writing or anything in life, the key is to find what really resonates with you—and to keep checking in with yourself to see if that idea is still relevant.
What insights on inspiration specifically speak to you?