‘Where Do I Find Inspiration?’

Originality comes from origins.

Hi, I love your newsletter! I write professionally, but not really creative stuff... just reported magazine articles or, I guess, criticism (this feels like such an incorrect and highbrow way of describing what I actually write, but I’m sure you get it). I read mostly fiction books (probably to counteract spending my days reading magazine/newspaper articles!) and love to think about what it would be like to write a short story or a novel or anything remotely in the category of creative writing. I love reading your advice about showing up to do the writing! But I have no idea what I would write.

How do people come up with stuff out of thin air? I feel like people always talk about drawing from their own experiences, but for me I imagine that would feel boring, indulgent, or forced. But then I’d have to make something up entirely, which sounds impossible. Reporting makes sense to me because it forms the story for me, and I don’t know how to get to a place where I could even write a short story from my own head. I often sit down to write freeform, but I always just end up basically journaling, which is even EASIER than reported stuff—it’s just the boring stuff in my own head!

I think the problem I’m having is one of inspiration—it’s hard enough to form a story idea from something that exists in the world, and to commit to telling that story well, from beginning to end, and fact check it! But that’s a craft, and I basically know how to do it. I think I’ve done it long enough that I can’t imagine myself being creative in any more whimsical way. Have you struggled at all with this? Are there things I can do to shake me out of my extremely non-fiction ways?

Santa Fe, NM

Dear ____,

The question you ask of inspiration is one older than both of us. Over time, it’s been attributed to various sources of vibrancy—from disposition to illness to a quality of spirit. But I believe that anyone can discover what it is they want to write. It is a matter of recognizing what it is you want to find.

The late poet Linda Gregg once wrote that the “art of finding in poetry is the art of marrying the sacred to the world, the invisible to the human” [1]. This art Gregg gets at is a practice of attention. Not that of a documentarian, recording for the next camera-op, or “painstaking” deliberation of detail, but one of passive awareness, one in which you witness the world “in the corner of the eye,” as poet Erica Hunt has put it [2]. While one’s gaze might skip now across the view on one’s street—the trees stripped for winter, cars glossed in the parking lot, a young man gliding by thick in a grey letterman—the details that you notice reveal your gaze; they reveal the awareness unique to where you’re coming from.

When I was very young, I was obsessed with one of those world-building multi-player games with castles, crypts, and lands that each harbored their own kinds of magical creatures. I was obsessed with the game not for any interest I had in winning—I loved it because I could minutely discover new worlds; I loved it because I could make my own maps. Rather than slowly galloping through the unknown pixels to reveal the maps that were set for me, I could create from the get, bestow gold mines for my characters, choose the exact features and situation for the princes I often played as.

I wrote stories from there. Whether I was the protagonist or voyeur, I was also a seven-year-old in a basement typing intently on a text document, saving it on a treasured purple floppy disk. It never occurred to me to write about reality as it was. My writing was reserved for what it could be.

This game gave me worlds in chunks: groups of characters who inhabited one kind of castle, kinds of creatures found in their realms. It also gave me pre-made dramas like revenge, long-lost royalty, and secret coups. At seven, I had no concept of clichés or tropes: everything was new. My writing grew from my willingness not to be original, but to explore, express, and, eventually, to understand.

___, from what you write in your letter above, facts don’t have to come from you: facts simply exist in the world. Facts don’t weigh on you like freedom. Facts come with a story for you to discover and piece together. They make a skeleton not only of what to write, but something worthy of being written. It may be terrifying, deep-down, to claim what you deem important. Without news cycles or cultural relevance, how do you choose for yourself? What nourishes you so much that it is always good?

It seems you’re being stifled by an idea of originality that just isn’t true. It certainly appears that there are writers out there who are conjuring things out of thin air, building stories and worlds that seem to have nothing to do with ours. But every story comes from someone and every someone comes from somewhere. A story is not written by words alone: it appears because a writer was responding to something else that already exists.

Linda Gregg calls these the “resonant sources,” structures and experiences of your life that will propel your work for the rest of your life [3]. Hence Gregg’s art of finding. Hence my own realization that my own life as a writer is a constant loop with what do I want in the world? They say that we’re often writing the same poems, the same stories, again and again. I have called it, in the past, the glimpse of a plane where the words illuminate, music pouring out. Sometimes it’s not a matter of finding. Sometimes it’s a matter of just writing down what you can.

Practically speaking, this means that you’re never starting out of thin air. You come from somewhere and you want to go somewhere. Your writing must answer these questions. It doesn’t matter how exactly you start to do this. The important thing is to calibrate your recognition of when you’ve found it.

You can start, ___, by writing with the structures you like most. Is there an esoteric system that fascinates you? Perhaps you could build a world from its features. Have you read a news story recently that left you wanting more of what happened? Create the details that you will never know from the available facts but might be plausible from them. Is there a dream you’ve had recently that made no sense, but whose absurdity grabbed your attention? Write it down and don’t look back for a few months. Have you ever been in love before you met someone? What was the fantasy you created of who they are? What do all these attractions say about you and what you want, in the end?

Over the years, I’ve never stopped writing in the way I did as a kid. Of course, the grain of my attention has matured. The chunks have whittled down to details; my understanding of where each detail fits being magnified and multiplied by libraries and lives lived, loves shared, homes filled. But the general concept is the same: notice yourself noticing. Write down what it is. Then write down why you’ve noticed it. Then write down what else it could be.

Our writing, in the end, contains composites of what propelled us at one point or another. They are collages of desire, a motley crew of yes and more and please. And writing gives us the gift of those other lives. From the bones of what you wish for come the dreams that make them not this reality, but a reality. Dream becomes memory. Rather than conjuring, let your writing remember. Let yourself, its first reader, understand what you’ve kept. Then never let us forget.


[1] Linda Gregg, from “The Art of Finding” (2006).
[2] Erica Hunt, collected in Jump the Clock: New and Selected Poems (2020).
[3] From “The Art of Finding” (2006).

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