Inspiration is a funny thing. It’s an idea that we romanticise, especially when talking about the arts. But it’s also a vital artistic tool, and one that we should constantly work on if we can.
Dylan Hearn wrote an interesting piece on his blog about this, and it got me thinking about my views on inspiration. So, because I’m a worse bandwagon jumper than revolutionary France, and because Dylan wanted to hear more from me on this, here’s my take on how to encourage inspiration.
We have a lot of different models and metaphors for how inspiration works.
Some people see it as a magical, mystical process. Something wild and uncontrollable that strikes out of nowhere.
I don’t buy into that view. Inspiration is something that happens in our brains, and one of the beautiful things about being human is that we can reshape our minds to do better. In fact, I think that mystifying inspiration is dangerous for an author. It implies that it’s something you can’t control, can’t work at and develop. That can give you an excuse not to put the words down – ‘I wasn’t feeling inspired’ – and of course it’s an excuse not to work on becoming more inspired – how can you if it’s not up to you?
I also don’t accept views of inspiration as a finite resource. Like you’ve only got so many great ideas in your head, and when the well runs dry that’s it.
In my view, the best way of understanding your mind’s capacity for inspiration is as something like a muscle. The more you flex it and train it the more it grows. Sure, if you over-use it you can get burned out in the short term, but in the long term you need to stretch it to do better.
Training regime one – the busy brain
One way to encourage your inspiration is through busyness, doing all the things that will get the cogwheels whirring in your head.
Research is one great way to do this, filling you full of facts, bouncing them off each other until they spark new ideas.
Practising coming up with ideas is another good way to develop those inspiration-making muscles. Nick Bentley’s 100:10:1 method is good for pushing yourself further, exhausting the obvious ideas so the great ones come out. Mumaw and Oldfield’s Caffeine for the Creative Mind has exercises for sparking creativity in different ways, and though it seems to be targeted at people in marketing it’s still useful for us mere writers.
And then there are exercises and guides to teach you how to think in different ways. Edward de Bono’s How To Be More Interesting has a terrible title and a sometimes pompous tone. But it also contains a really good breakdown of different ways to expand upon an idea, as well as some exercises to practice developing ideas.
But really what all of this comes down to is practice. However you do it, you should practice coming up with ideas and connections between them, because then more will come.
Training regime two – the quiet brain
Your body needs rest between bouts of exercise, so that it can recover and rebuild itself better, faster, stronger. The same applies to your brain. Spend the whole time busy and it will get overwhelmed.
Take some time to let your brain be quiet and relaxed. Not the distracted sort of relaxed that comes with the TV on, but the empty relaxed. Let your mind wander while you’re walking or washing up. Try emptying out your clutter using mindfulness exercises. Give your brain some peace and quiet.
The thing about that peace and quiet is that it won’t last, and that’s part of why it’s so valuable. Ideas will bubble up unbidden. I came up with the climax of an upcoming novel while driving, my brain drifting while on long straight roads and then ticking over at traffic lights.
Train your brain to come up with ideas, and then give them space in which to emerge.
Just like with this blog
My blogging is an example of this in action. I used to struggle for things to say, but for the past year I’ve written five or six blog posts a week. Now my brain is trained to come up with blog posts and so blogging inspiration strikes all the time. I’ve got a notebook of ideas, and some of the older ones will never see a computer screen because new ones keep flooding in.
So train your brain to be inspired. Don’t just wait for your muse to strike, because that way lies an atrophied inspiration muscle and a very long wait.