Planning inspiration

“Genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.” —Thomas Edison

Sure, to some writers, and to many writers at some times, writing comes easily. Words pour out, ideas flow—note the metaphor there—and poof, the essay or song or poem is done.

Or at least the draft is. “Draft” is important, because this is where the perspiration comes in: hour after hour of sitting there, perhaps interspersed with pacing around, fixing a word here, a paragraph there, rethinking dialogue, scrapping this line of approach, checking and rechecking and re-researching and ….

But what if you can separate these ideas? If writing is your job, you’re not going to be “inspired” every day. It’s work. There are plenty of descriptions of how writers have arranged their days to force, manipulate, and trick themselves into being productive when, staring at a blank page, they feel anything but. No, I’m talking about cultivating the butterflies of thought, grabbing lightning out of the sky.

Paul McCartney has said the melody to “Yesterday” came to him fully formed in a dream. He played it to people for weeks, afraid he’d purloined it unintentionally, but apparently his brain made it up on its own. Granted, a song is shorter than a novel, but either can be suddenly inspired, in whole or in part. The trick is to make this happen regularly—to catch the butterflies that flit by rather than just be delighted when one deigns to land on your shoulder.

One well-known tip is to put a notebook or smartphone where you need it to capture the fleeting thought. If a thought arrives in an orderly fashion while you’re sitting at your computer or recording device, you’re covered. Otherwise, consider when such a thought might arrive: when you’re drifting off to sleep? Washing dishes? Driving? No coincidence. Your conscious mind is engaged in something else, allowing your subconscious to wander. Don’t text and drive, kids, but other than that, put your notebook or device where your thoughts are.

Another is to go see, hear, read, or do something else. This accomplishes two things: It gets your (conscious) mind off the problem, and it puts something else in front of you, maybe something that inspires different and better thoughts. Exercise is good at clearing the head. Looking at art or listening to music plants new seeds in your head. Either or all are good for writing—because they’re not writing.

To look at the same advice from a different angle, an idea that’s usually worked for me is to give my brain some ingredients and tell it to go away and cook. That is, say I know I want to come up with a speech or a song, a story or a transition. I consider the assignment, the audience, the length, the topic, anything previously written, then sleep on it or do something else for a day or two. When I come back, the recipe is made, or at least the ingredients have been formed into something interesting and provocative that I can develop further.

It works with the most prosaic nonfiction, by the way. I have an assignment now on a topic many people would find a colossal bore. To me it’s somewhat interesting—but to make the article as perky as its readers deserve, I’m going to use that exact technique: pour into my head the ingredients (previous coverage; my interview notes) and let them meld for a few days, then sit down and see what my subconscious has come up with.

I expect the results to be inspired.

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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