by Darlene Cah
I’ve heard it said that writers can’t wait for inspiration. We have to start writing even without that grand idea, the magical spark that spurs us forward into that time-suspended state of mind where words spew onto our computer screens, seemingly on their own. While those brilliant moments happen (and what gifts they are!), more often than not, inspiration needs a little nudge. Sometimes a good kick. Sledgehammer, anyone?
Here are some tried and true, and a few quirky, ways to conjure the muse.
Be a Prompt Writer
I can’t count the times I’ve said I love prompts—in this blog, to friends and just a few minutes ago in a facebook message to another writer! Yes, I love prompts. They push you in directions you might not have taken, and if you add a time limit, the pressure forces you to spill it out, free of that intrusive inner critic. They’re not meant to produce finished stories, but merely to get you started. Sometimes, however, what you start can be polished into a real gem of a story. Two of my stories started by prompts have been published. You can do a Google search for writing prompts and you’ll get over 20 million results! Here are a few to start you off:
Sarah Selecky offers daily email prompts. Sign up free
Poets & Writers publishes weekly prompts. You can check the site or have them emailed to you.
Writer’s Digest posts prompts on their site.
Writing-World lists several resources for prompts on their site.
Go to a Workshop. Or take a class.
Fellow writer, Brittany Hampton taught a two-week continuing ed class called “In-Class Writing” at our local community college a few years ago. We spent 90 minutes writing from prompts, timed in short spurts of 4 – 10 minutes each. No homework, unless we wanted to work on a piece we started.
Recently, I spent the weekend at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC at the Hub City Writing in Place Conference. You can read about my past adventures at this workshop in my previous posts: Great Expectations and The Hub City Experience.
This year, I was in Chris Bundy’s class. Chris is an excellent teacher, funny, engaging and supportive. He crammed a lot into the short time we had together. The lessons were pretty basic, but we all know working on the basics is never a waste of time. Those skills of story, character, voice, point of view, etc need to be honed repeatedly over a lifetime of writing. Use them. Improve them. Or lose them. Okay, “lose” might be a bit dramatic. But, trust me, rust spreads fast! Yes, that creaking noise you just heard was me!
Here is one of Chris’ exercises: Show don’t tell.
Write three short scenes with the following emotions:
Do not use the actual words at all. Let the reader feel the emotions by describing physical sensations, images or dialogue that offers sub-textual meaning.
Ripped from the Headlines (or obits or stories buried on the last page)
I took a one-day Hub City workshop taught by Ashley Warlick several years ago. She brought in binders and binders of newspaper articles she’d collected over the years. She had us read one and write a scene depicting the storyline from any “character” involved. Since this was a fiction workshop, we were encouraged to expand on the facts. That would be: make stuff up.
Improvise! (You knew I was going there!)
Enter the “Drawing” Room
In the improv exercise, actors would get up on stage one-by-one and create a “room” by calling out objects where they would be placed. Unless you want to gather all your friends or family together to play this game, which would be great fun, you can close your eyes and picture a room—bedroom, kitchen, stockroom at the dollar store, attic, whatever. Then draw it in detail. You don’t have to be a great artist. Doodle and label if you must. Put two characters that either belong, or don’t belong, in that room and let the scene begin. When you “furnish” your room, no need to stick with conventional items! Shove that suit of armor in the corner of the kitchen. Hide those love letters under the mattress of the baby’s crib. Have fun with it.
Like Comparing Apples & Oranges
Explore and discover. Take two completely unrelated objects and imagine how they might be related and write a paragraph or two explaining the connection. What does a screwdriver have to do with a mocha latte? How are the fresh-picked daisies and bicycle helmet related? This is just an exercise to spark creativity. Free write and don’t edit. Everything you write is correct. Who knows? You might find a story emerge.
When I asked my writer friends, Nancy and Clare about this one, I got a surprising response. They felt reading just inspires them to read more, not write. I can see that. I like to get lost in a good book, or fifty! For me, reading often opens my eyes to different approaches to writing prose. The fresh description. The hilarious true tale. The one word in a poem that slays you—though I have to admit, poetry and I are still trying to get to know each other!
I’ve been reading a lot, lately, and have a precarious pile of books waiting for me. Here are just a few recent books that stand out for me.
Tales from a Hungry Life by Maria Schulz
I know Maria from our days working together at Doubleday/Bookspan. She is one funny gal and her humor comes through on the page—no easy feat. I’ve heard many of her wild Italian/Puerto Rican family anecdotes in person and read them on her blog. Her memoir takes you right into her Queens neighborhood and helps you plan dinner, to boot! For me, this book reminded me that I have a sense of humor, which I feel I’ve lost in my writing. Reading about her antics, I’m encouraged to rediscover the silliness in life.
Byrd by Kim Church
I may have mentioned Kim’s book before. Kim taught a workshop at Isothermal Community College in Spindale, NC two years ago and she told us about this book due to launch in 2014. It seemed like ages to wait. It is extraordinary. Her characters are beautifully human, imperfect, warm and approachable. The language is refreshing and the format of the novel is delightfully unconventional. This book inspired me to try and give my characters flaws that breathe life into them.
Bark by Lorrie Moore
I’m just finishing this collection by one of my favorite short story writers. In improv, we learn there is truth in comedy. Truth is, many of these stories are funny, but there are some deadly (at times literally!) serious themes reverberating beneath the surface and between the lines, the words and the very letters on the page. The characters are often raw and sometimes completely quirky, but all very real. You may think a story is going one way, and the next sentence, Moore tosses you on your head. By reading this collection, I’m realizing I need to take more chances, stop being so predictable in my work.
What keeps you inspired and motivated to write? Please share. I need all the help I can get.