7 Reasons Inspiration Matters to Writers

We know the common wisdom: Serious writers don’t wait to be inspired. Serious writers roll up their sleeves and get down to the business of writing, just as they would get themselves to work at any 9-to-5 job. “Being inspired” smacks of amateurish, daydreamy passivity, the notion that some supernatural presence must appear before us before the words can flow. And we’re reminded to death of Thomas Edison’s overquoted words about invention demanding 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration, perhaps not realizing that without that primal 1 percent jolt from the gods, Edison might not have been driven to sweat out the hard work or to cope with a zillion things going wrong.

Call me a heretic, but I champion inspiration—and deplore the way it’s been maligned. I think of inspiration as desire infused with spirit and topped with an almost reckless optimism. Inspiration enables us to transcend our limitations and accomplish things we never thought possible. Inspiration voids our excuses for not writing and fuels our urge to keep writing. When our tasks loom impossible before us and threaten to keep us grounded, inspiration gives us wings.

But there’s a catch. We must not wait around passively to be impregnated by some Jovian inspirational shower of gold. This isn’t just a roundabout way of saying that productive hard work generates its own inspiration—though that is certainly true. I’m also saying that most of us need a bolt or two of inspiration to get us to the daunting task of transforming thoughts into words and words into stories.

Inspiration can be found virtually everywhere—in books, in music, in the natural world, in meditation, in faith, in creative play. This you already know. But it’s also important to understand why seeking inspiration from these sources is so important to a writer.

1. Inspiration transforms us from creative readers to creative writers.
You’re reading a book by one of your favorite authors, and all of a sudden the top of your head and your fingertips start to tingle; you grab a pen and begin scribbling away. Give me a few minutes with a work of creative nonfiction by, say, Diane Ackerman, and lo, I’m itching to begin an essay of my own. All it takes is one startlingly imaginative yet information-rich passage like this, the opening lines of An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain:

Imagine the brain, that shiny mound of being, that mouse-gray parliament of cells, that dream factory, that petit tyrant inside a ball of bone, that huddle of neurons calling all the plays, that little everywhere, that fickle pleasuredrome, that wrinkled wardrobe of selves stuffed into the skull like too many clothes into a gym bag. The neocortex has ridges, valleys and folds because the brain kept remodeling itself though space was tight.

“Mound of being” … “parliament of cells” … “wrinkled wardrobe of selves” … such poetry in prose floods my mind with emotions, associations, experiences that demand to be summoned forth—as a poem about the miracle of consciousness, perhaps, or as a short story about a teenager who undergoes a life-changing experience after discovering the hidden potential of the human brain. Inspiration turns reading into creative reading.

What authors inspire you to start writing? Turn to them during dry spells, and as soon as their words begin rousing your own word hoard to life, reach for pen and paper. Sometimes even typing out a passage verbatim can get the ball rolling.

2. Inspiration heightens our senses.
It matters a lot that, as writers, our sensory receptors be fine-tuned. Inspiration helps us do that. Consider music: Few earthly sensations stir the soul like a beautiful song or symphony. To paraphrase a famous poem by Emily Dickinson (“This World is not Conclusion”), nothing is more invisible than music, yet nothing more positive than sound. If you hit a dry spell, set yourself adrift upon a Bach cantata or a Strauss waltz, or envelop yourself in the silk scarves or the sensuous vocal textures of a Tony Bennett or an Ella Fitzgerald—but keep a firm grip on your pen as you sail out to sea.

It’s tough to generalize about the best ways to use music for inspiration. For me, I need near-arctic silence when writing a first draft of anything, but when I’m revising (which accounts for two-thirds of my writing time), music eases me through the verbal acrobatics. The music can’t call too much attention to itself, though; nor should it be sappy “background” music of the elevator variety. German Baroque composers had a word for it: Tafelmusik—literally, music for the table, for dining. Such music has a way of adding emotional ballast to our thoughts. A close analogy would be the musical score of a motion picture.

3. Inspiration develops our understanding of human nature.
To be inspired by people is to be continually rewarded with story ideas. People are walking, talking stories. Everyone we encounter has the potential for contributing to our understanding of human nature—if we allow ourselves to be inspired by human nature in all its diversity. Why is that old man clutching his briefcase to his chest? What mini-dramas are unfolding behind the tattered curtains of those tenement windows? What events have led to that woman in the lounge dabbing her mascara-smeared eyes with a cocktail napkin? The spectrum of human behavior, the eccentricities and foibles and enigmas, continually inspires writers. This is why you always should carry a notebook; those little jolts of inspiration also are very fleeting. Airport terminals, cruise ships, shopping malls, beaches, carnivals, restaurants and lounges, weddings and parties are great places for writers who are hungry for story ideas. Then, on a day when you simply don’t feel inspired to write a single word, you can follow the example of Joan Didion, as she describes in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook”:

When the world seems drained of wonder … when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write … I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest … dialogue overheard in hotels and elevators and at the hat-check counter in Pavilion (one middle-aged man shows his hat check to another and says, “That’s my old football number”).

“It all comes back,” Didion repeats in that essay. What could be more inspirational than opening your notebook to a bit of overheard conversation written years ago and seeing a complete story flash before your eyes?

4. Inspiration improves our capacity for appreciating nature.
The great outdoors is inspiration in waiting. Trees, mountains, butterflies, hawks circling high overhead, sunrises and sunsets, wind rustling the leaves at night or howling across vast open spaces—all have the capacity to heighten our awareness and fill us with the desire to write. But we must first allow ourselves to be inspired by nature. Urbanites that most of us are obliged to be, we drink in too little of the natural world—which is a shame, because nature replenishes us in so many ways. Hiking in Muir Woods, I feel both humbled and enlarged by the majestic redwoods—humbled enough to allow my ego to be displaced by nature’s grand design, enlarged enough to try and capture the sublime feelings in words. I think of Thoreau, who turned to the wild for self-discovery. “When I would recreate myself,” he writes in “Walking,” one of his most memorable essays, “I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most interminable … swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place.” A swamp as a sacred place? Yes, because, as with mountains and forests, swamps represent raw, uncultivated nature—as well as a place to which we are biologically rooted.

5. Inspiration helps us achieve mental discipline.
Think of meditation as a kind of internal pilgrimage. Not just for New Age spiritualists, meditation can be both a practical and an emotionally fulfilling means of rediscovering our deepest needs, of replenishing our psychic energy, of regaining perspective on short- and long-term goals. In this age of distractions, it isn’t always easy to get into a meditative state, but a dose of inspiration can serve as a catalyst. Anticipation is the key—anticipating the peacefulness as well as the heightened mental discipline a meditative state can provide. How many times have we given up on a piece of writing because we lacked the patience to work out the necessary elements? Meditation enables us to draw from our own inner resources in order to be more productive writers.

Follow these steps: First, find a quiet and comfortable place. Second, decide upon a specific purpose for your meditation—nothing too demanding. For example, if you’re stalled on a short story, you might put yourself in the mind of your protagonist; observe the world through her eyes. What do you see and feel? Be patient; breathe deeply and open your mind to the voices within. Finally, resolve to return to your writing task, concentrating only on tackling that one problem.

6. Inspiration intensifies our spiritual connection to our craft.
We partake of the spiritual whenever we engage in any sort of creative activity. This is the way of all artists. Creative inspiration shares much in common with divine inspiration; just think of the many poets—George Herbert, John Donne, William Blake—who drew from their faith to create their art. It was Blake, after all, who saw “a world in a grain of sand,” “eternity in an hour.” Inspiration and faith are two sides of the same motivational coin. Inspiration, we might say, is faith shifted into high gear.

I use the word “faith” to include not just a particular religious credo but a transcendent, heightened spiritual feeling that can come to us from everyday things: a flight of birds across a darkening sky; the glint of sunlight through stained glass; a squirrel’s tracks through freshly fallen snow. We feel a surge of faith when we witness the birth of a child, when we read about an act of heroism, when we contribute time or money to a charity. I am writing these words on September 11 (2009), a day that has been officially designated a National Day of Service and Remembrance. To think of the 343 firefighters and paramedics who gave their lives to save hundreds of others from the inferno of the stricken towers is to recognize the triumph of human goodness over human evil. Such acts of courage and altruism reinforce our faith in humanity—a powerful incentive for wielding the pen instead of the sword.

And faith can infuse our work with authenticity that speaks powerfully to our readers.

7. Inspiration reinforces our commitment to writing.
Writing, like faith, also generates its own inspiration. Why is that? Well, a big part of what it means to be human is to discover things, not just through methodical inquiry, but through creative play—spontaneous free associating or painting, for example; or serendipitous reading, like wandering down a library aisle, pulling out a book at random, and connecting whatever you chance upon to your work-in-progress. One of my favorite prompts in my book The Daily Writer is to engage in a bit of surrealistic free association: List a dozen or so objects that flash into your mind, and then write a poem or story in which some or all of them are connected in some meaningful way. Why not give it a try?

We read to discover new knowledge, to vicariously experience life as others live it. Writing offers us similar experiences: We write to discover that we have more to say about a topic than we first realized; we write to experience the satisfaction of staging human dramas that can stir the emotions of our readers. Once we’ve set out upon that yellow brick road of discovery and vicarious experience, inspiration compounds with every step. Or at least it should. “If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun,” Ray Bradbury asserts in Zen in the Art of Writing, “you are only half a writer.”

Inspiration matters because it prods us to traverse the full spectrum of human experience. An important part of what it means to be a writer is to become so turned on to the business of being alive, to be so completely inspired by life, that you will harvest ideas for writing everywhere—from books, from people, from music and other art forms, from the natural world, and most of all from your own inner resources. 

Want more inspiration? Consider:
Pocket Muse II, Endless Inspiration

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