I had a screenwriting professor who once shared with me a useful bit of advice. She said, “Inspiration will fail you.”
In other words, we writers can’t wait around for inspiration to find us. If we want success, we must seek inspiration.
Of course, that’s a proposition that’s easier said than done. Even while writing this very article, I’ve wished for some bottled inspiration I could simply chug to get going. Though such a concoction doesn't exist, I hope this article serves as an acceptable second option.
But First, Let’s Define Inspiration
Yes, we all know what the word means. But I think it’s worth taking a moment at the top to drill down on what we’re looking for.
Here’s the definition of inspiration from the New Oxford American Dictionary: “The process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.”
As we can see, this is a fairly broad term. And as any writer will know, inspiration can come in many forms: Perhaps a dream, an overheard scrap of conversation, or even a chance thought caused by nothing in particular.
Yet all those examples are spontaneous. What about those intentional moments of inspiration?
That’s what I love so much about the above definition; inspiration is defined as a “process,” which implies intent.
So, without further ado, let’s examine those purposeful methods.
Hey, I don’t mean this literally (paper can’t taste nice, nor is it good for you). Here’s what I do mean: read books. Watch movies. Watch TV. Study artwork. Listen to music (or play it). Whatever type of art you enjoy, consume it. Internalize it.
For writers, reading is likely the most important of these skills. To write a good book, you must first read good books—as many as you can find. To write successfully in your genre, you must understand it. Your reading will teach you tropes, structure, and language. But it will also inspire you.
I know I’m inspired every time I read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, just to name a few of my favorites. One can’t help but be inspired by masterful writing. It reminds us why we started writing ourselves, and it shows our imagination how far we can go, so long as we work at it.
But the search for inspiration need not stop at writing. Though I now write exclusively prose, for example, I actually earned a degree in screenwriting. The latter taught me much about the former, such as outlining, three-act structure, and how to write dialogue that stands without dialogue tags.
The same principle applies to less related forms of art, such as painting and music. A vivid painting, for instance, might provide a visual for the scene you’re working on. Similarly, listening to a particular song while writing might lend a certain mood to your work.
Explore art, both in books and beyond. You’ll be amazed by what it inspires.
Commit to a Routine
As the old rock-and-roll fable goes, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards devised the guitar riff to “Satisfaction” in his dreams. So yes, sometimes inspiration is just that easy. But if we’re waiting for our dreams to give us inspiration, we’re going to be doing a lot of sleeping.
Routines prevent that sort of complacency. Committing to daily, weekly, and monthly goals gives us consistent projects, so we’re not waiting for inspiration—we’re seeking it out. After all, we need some spark of inspiration, however dim, to put words on paper every day.
Your routine will look different from others’. That’s not just natural—it’s healthy. You shouldn’t hold yourself to someone else's standards. Devise your goals, however meager they may seem at first, and then stick to them.
One famous symbol of the power of daily goals is novelist John Grisham. In the early 1980s, Grisham served as both an attorney and a member of the House of Representatives. Oh, and by the way, he was also writing a novel. Here’s the story from his website:
“Getting up at 5 a.m. every day to get in several hours of writing time before heading off to work, Grisham spent three years on A Time to Kill and finished it in 1987.”
Now that’s how you find inspiration. Grisham worked on his story every day for three years; not what most would describe as a prodigious output, yet consistent beyond a doubt. It paid off for him in the form of a decades-long writing career. Establish a similar routine yourself, and reap the benefits.
Keep a Notebook
This classic bit of advice is classic for a reason. It really works!
The truth is, we all have flashes of inspiration every day—we just don’t remember them. This morning, for example, I awoke with the memory of an especially vivid dream. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what that dream was about, because I’ve forgotten it. Where was my notebook?!
If I'd written down my dream immediately after waking from it, I’d remember it right now. Perhaps it would serve as the basis for a great short story. Or why not even a novel? Write down anything that inspires you, even the seemingly small stuff. You never know what it might become.
Another example, I once wrote down a fairly innocuous observation in my notebook: “Santa and Satan.” (They are only two letters off, of course.) I thought it was merely an amusing comment that wouldn’t ever amount to anything. And yet, one day when I wasn’t feeling especially inspired, I tried using this throwaway joke to write a story.
Surprisingly, it worked! I penned a short story exclusively for my newsletter subscribers based on this idea. It was about a kid who tries to summon Satan, but misspells the name and gets Santa instead.
This story didn’t bring me everlasting fame like, say, John Grisham. But it was a fun story that I thoroughly enjoyed writing (and readers seemed to enjoy reading). All that from a simple sentence in my notebook.
Join a Writers’ Group
I’ve written about the importance of such groups before, but I’m happy to do it again here. For those who’ve never joined one, a writers’ group is exactly what it sounds like: a group of writers that meets regularly to discuss, well, writing.
Such groups can take different forms, but one of the most common is essentially a critique circle. Each meeting, someone presents their work-in-progress and requests feedback, constructive criticism, and general thoughts on the work. The writer then internalizes those thoughts and decides whether or not to make the changes (usually, they do).
One might wonder where the inspiration comes from in a writers’ group. Well, simply put, it comes from your fellow writers. You’ll naturally have discussions about your craft that lead to creative epiphanies (for example, I actually based an opening chapter to a forthcoming novel on my experiences with my group).
You’ll also receive book recommendations (refer back to tip number one), many of which will improve your writing. In some instances, your fellow members might even offer you an idea for your story that you never thought of before.
Finally—and this may not apply to everyone—a little healthy competition can be an excellent motivator. When you see your fellow writers working hard and pushing themselves to succeed, you might feel inspired to do the same.
Joining a writer’s group was one of the most helpful actions I’ve taken in my writing journey. ProWritingAid has its own Writers' Community on Facebook, which serves as a place for people to connect and help each other become better writers.
Feel free to share posts about what you’re writing, to ask questions of community members, and to share your wins, challenges, ideas, prompts, and feedback with your fellow writers. They're here to help.
Join the group to find out more—they'd love to have you!
Take on Several Projects
This method might not work for some, but I find it helpful, especially when I’ve run aground on my current work.
When you’ve lost inspiration on one project, shift to another. Give your mind a new puzzle to work on, a new story to tell. Enjoy the creative experience, and then, when you’re ready, hop back to your original project. I find that the time away often reignites my creativity.
Why does this method work? Because our subconscious does much more work than we give it credit for. Even when we’re not intentionally thinking of a solution to our problems, our brain is working on it.
Furthermore, balancing multiple projects gives us something to work on while we might otherwise not be practicing writing. Sure, you could step away from writing completely for a day or two. But why not spend that time improving your craft? It might be something light and fun, like a blog post, a flash fiction piece, or even the first chapter of another book altogether. Just use that time to clear your mind, then come back.
So let’s try letting our minds find inspiration, even when it seems lost to us. The subconscious is more powerful than we realize.
Don’t Let Inspiration Fail You
Get out there and find it! You never know where it might be hiding.