Inspiration for Writers: Hunt It Down!
Not many writers lounge in an ivy-covered tower pouring out inspired words – that’s unrealistic. Many successful writers still keep a day job, most out of necessity, some out of choice. How inspired would you feel if you sat in an ivy-covered tower all day? Seasoned writers say that, since few books make much money, the key to earning a living as a writer is to write a lot of books. Not to wait for inspiration.
A real-world example: professional songwriters don’t sit on a large rock with their lute or flute, watching the sheep and waiting for inspiration. Songwriting is a joy, true, but for them, it’s also a job. Every major music publisher pays a team of contracted staff writers. Particularly in Nashville, country songwriters get a monthly salary to come to the office every day (to a literal office) and write their quota of songs.
Legendary songwriter Carole King described that sort of life, which she experienced in New York’s ‘Brill Building’ in the 1960s:
“Every day we squeezed into our respective cubby holes with just enough room for a piano, a bench, and maybe a chair for the lyricist if you were lucky. You’d sit there and write and you could hear someone in the next cubbyhole composing a song exactly like yours.”
When inspiration flees
What if a staff songwriter doesn’t feel like writing? What if they feel like not writing? What do they do when circumstances conspire against inspiration?
That’s what happened to Albert Askew Beach (1924-1997). As I remember the story from Reader’s Digest Treasury of Beloved Songs, one night Mr. Beach was sitting at his piano trying to come up with new English lyrics for Charles Trenet’s song “Que reste-t-il de nos amours?” about the end of a love affair
Unfortunately, next door a love affair really was ending, judging from the noises coming from the neighboring apartment, as the soon-to-be-former couple angrily and loudly pronounced curses upon each other. In the 1950s, angry, loud love songs were not yet a thing and Beach wasn’t making much progress on his lyrics. (The angry neighbors probably didn’t much appreciate the romantic piano accompaniment either.)
Then Beach had an bright idea, out of necessity, his publisher’s quota, and his need for grocery money. What if he turned every curse he heard into a blessing? So when the neighbors shouted at each other, “Leave! I don’t care. I hope you freeze to death!” Beach wrote,
I wish you shelter from the storm
A cozy fire to keep you warm
The resulting song, known as “I Wish You Love,” became a standard, a classic in its day.
Inspiration by twisting
If you need to turn an overworked idea into something fresh, like Albert Askew Beach, try twisting it and reversing it. For example, all romantic comedies have the same basic plot: ‘Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl.’ But what if the boy never manages to meet the girl? What if he tries to lose her but can’t? What if she is not a girl but a ghost? (“Your wife’s family lives in the old mansion on the hill? Why, that’s impossible. Nobody has lived there for a hundred years…”)
J.K. Rowling turned a twist into a hit. By the 1990s it was hard to imagine what could happen in a British boarding school that hadn’t already happened in the hundreds of novels set in one. Then she asked herself, “Okay, what if I set my novel in a British boarding school for wizards?” Try it: it might sell. (Spoiler: it did sell – 400 million copies including sequels – it was called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but now that fresh idea has been taken so you need to come up with your own.)
Adding a twist lets you borrow inspiration without stealing it or plagiarizing. Neal Gaiman didn’t say, “Let’s pretend I’m Rudyard Kipling and rewrite The Jungle Book.” Instead, he wrote The Graveyard Book, adding a twist to the same 1894 premise (ghosts instead of animals), and won the Newbery Medal, the Carnegie Medal, the Hugo Award, and the Locus Award.
Inspiration through diversifying
James A. Michener became a successful novelist only later in life – he published his first book at age 40. He didn’t ascribe his success to any careful plan, but to a wide variety of seemingly random experiences, saying, “I have worked all my life, never very seriously and never with any long-term purpose.” While still in his teens, he hitchhiked and hopped freight trains from Canada almost to Florida (45 states), and eventually visited nearly every country in the world. (A change of scenery often brings inspiration, but no, you don’t need to visit every country in the world.) In his early life, Michener was a chestnut vendor, a private detective in an amusement park, a night watchman in a hotel, a graduate student in Scotland, a high school English teacher, a social studies editor, and a naval historian in the South Pacific. He won a Pulitzer Prize for writing South Pacific.
Dr. Seuss, aka Theodor Seuss Geisel, was first known as the creator of the line “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” then as the writer and illustrator of children’s books such as The Cat in the Hat. He was less known for the hundreds of hats he collected over 60 years, everything from an Italian colonel’s hat to a plastic Viking helmet. Whenever he needed a fresh perspective, he could put on a hat. The hat collection itself probably inspired his book The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins.
Even small changes can give you inspiration. You can find inspiration tools online that suggest and combine words in new ways, even offering first lines, writing prompts, and story starters.