All writers dread those times when inspiration eludes us. Stuck in a creative dry spell, we write mechanically, our words shriveling up on the page and our ideas evaporating into thin air. In these moments, we are restless, fearful, superstitious. We wonder how long we will be stuck in this desert. We know inspiration is the key to our escape. But where is it? And most importantly, how can we coax it to return?
The definition of word “inspiration” sheds light on its mysterious nature. It comes from the Latin “inspirare,” which means to breathe or blow in. Inspiration feels like an exhilarating creative “breeze.” It bursts into our consciousness with a heady rush–much like a blast of pure oxygen. But it also flies out of our minds just as quickly. How many times have I regretted an inspirational burst that was not written down and vanished into thin air? So, I have learned to pause and heed it. Not surprisingly, the word “spirit” is also derived from this same Latin root because the Romans and the Ancient Greeks believed that inspiration came from a divine source. The Greeks personified it as lithe and lovely muses–daughters of Zeus and Uranus.
So how can you summon your elusive muse? Here are some suggestions which have worked for me:
1. Take a Walk. The simple act of going out and observing life can stimulate your creative energies. Some of you will find inspiration in the woods, like Thoreau; others will find it by observing people.
2. Browse through Creative Websites. You can bookmark sites that have thought-provoking and inspiring posts. Two of my favorites are Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings and Tiny Buddah. And don’t forget great Word Press blogs like Mirth and Motivation and Pairings:: Art + What Goes With It.
3. Take a Trip to the Library. Don’t eliminate the obvious choice of wandering through the stacks and thumbing through an oversized book on the art of Van Gogh or the wildflowers of Provence–for example. Not long ago, I visited the rare book room at the Boston Public Library and read through Sacco and Vanzetti’s correspondence to friends and family while in prison in the 1920’s. In a corridor up on the third floor, I also spotted Gutzon Borglum’s bas relief of these 2 Italians who were found guilty of murder and executed in 1927. How perfect was that for my research and inspiring too!
5. Visit Museums & Antique Shops. Famous works of art have inspired writers like Donna Tartt and Tracy Chevalier. Perhaps they will awaken your muse too. Or maybe, you’ll spot a dress worn by an Egyptian princess or a knight’s suit of armor, which sets your mind whirling. My personal choice is to visit antique shops, where I hunt for vintage postcards. I especially like the ones which tell a story.
6. Read Calls for Manuscripts. Editors are often looking for creative writing on specific topics. Sites like Poets and Writers post monthly lists of editorial requests for poems, short stories, and creative fiction. The ads include the topic, word length, deadline, and payment. You may already have a manuscript in a drawer on this topic or you may be inspired to write something new.
7. Be a Good Listener. Perhaps you overhear a conversation in Starbucks between two co-workers who are complaining about their horrible boss. Or, perhaps a stranger in a hospital waiting room tells you about her son, who was rushed into Emergency with a drug overdose. Recognize that these stories are creative gifts, which have just fallen into your lap. Afterward, take notes on what you’ve heard. These creative “seeds” may spark new works.
8. Jot Down Your Dreams. Sometimes inspiration sneaks up on us in the middle of the night. Heed the good and wise doctors Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, two of the greatest minds of the Twentieth Century, who tell us never to underestimate the power of the unconscious. Keeping track of your dreams may open doors to new creative worlds.
9. Watch an Inspiring Film or Video. Some movies can jump start your creativity, especially those that you can watch over and over. My personal choices are Casablanca ,To Kill A Mockingbird, and Fargo, which never fail to trigger new ideas. Short inspirational videos like this one by Ira Glass from NPR can also provide reassurance when you’re at a creative dead end.
10. Talk to Other Creative People. Do you have friends who are artists, musicians, and writers? Meet them for coffee and ask them about their work. Sometimes kindred spirits can inspire each other. If you live in a creative wasteland, consider online social networking sites like Zoetrope, started by the filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. You may also want to check your local Meetup groups to see if there are other creative types in your area.
11. Keep a File of Creative Inspiration. Start a collection of news stories, magazine articles and photographs that get your thoughts spinning in new directions. Maybe you have letters, cards, photographs, and even paper napkins where you’ve jotted down ideas. Keep them handy in a folder. From time to time, take a look at them.
And finally, my last suggestion:
12. Be Patient. These creative dry spells do not last forever–even though they may seem like an eternity. Sometimes we must simply wait for them to pass. I often think of the great writer, E.L. Doctorow, who described a time when he was in a creative funk, and was simply staring at the walls in his attic office. Finally, in desperation, he started to write about these bare wooden walls, which led him to describe his house, and then his village in Westchester, N.Y. Eventually this description became the first few pages of one of his finest novels, Ragtime.
To see more creative inspiration from the sculptor, Charles Pilkey, check out his website:
How do you summon your creative muse? What has worked for you?