What is this “Inspiration” thing, anyway?

So, recently, I came across an article by a writer talking about their writing struggles, and being a writer myself, I gave it a read. I figured it’d be a nice bit of catharsis to hear about someone else’s writing problems and so forth, but, unsettlingly enough, I found some of the struggles listed to be completely foreign to me. Sure, some of them were fairly commonplace and empathizable, but others completely befuddled me. Things like finding published books unnervingly similar to your own, or having your creative tank run dry. I mean, sure, I fight with writer’s block a lot, but “filling my creative tank” has never been the answer. Reading great writing does help me improve in a general sense, but it doesn’t refresh me creatively. I don’t have a sort of creative stamina bar that runs out if I write for too long. If I get on a roll, it usually lasts until I physically have to stop, while if I can’t get going, no power in heaven or earth is going to get me going.

And all of this finally brought me to the unusual realization that I don’t get inspired like other people seem to. I don’t read a great book and go, “Man! I should write a story like that!” At least, not consciously. Sure, when I was much younger I’d prance around after watching Star Wars and weave little tales of spaceships and lasers, but those never became stories. Not that I wrote. And sure, when I was really young my stories were essentially just ripoffs of other things, but I quickly over-compensated and instead became neurotically obsessed with originality. Granted, even nowadays I may hear a phrase or something that gives me an idea that feels like gold, and I’ll jot that down, but I don’t have any recollection of ever using some of this “gold” in a story. Not if it was inspired by anything that didn’t come from my own head.

And yet, despite this, I talk about inspiration a lot, and depend upon it utterly. If i’m not inspired, again, no power in heaven or earth can make me write. I can’t simply write whatever and whenever I like, even if I have a great idea. If I’m not inspired to write that thing, it will not be written. I can try all I want, but it’s like juicing a lemon with a pillow. It just doesn’t work.

But, if I’m not inspired by books or movies or anything along those lines, what is this magic inspiration that I depend on? And where does it come from? The answer is I have no idea. The only thing that maybe slightly inspires me is visual art like paintings, and even then I don’t decide what that art inspires me to write (it’s rarely even tangentially related, if I’m honest). And I really don’t think I ever get any real inspiration from other writing. At least, as far as I’m aware. There may be something deep down in my subconscious that pulls together tiny bits of other people’s ideas and then presents me the result, but I wouldn’t know if there was. My inspiration just sort of feels like a tap in my head, and moreover a tap I don’t have real control over. Sometimes it’s on and sometimes it’s off, and most of the time something’s always dripping out of it.

I never decide what comes out of this tap, it just comes. I don’t have a “creative process.” I don’t sit down and consciously, intentionally invent characters and worlds. My writing isn’t engineered. I don’t think any of it through, and I haven’t knowingly grabbed bits from other things and tacked them on since I could ride a bike (at least as far as I can remember). Most of all, I never flesh out details. I never “worldbuild”, not for my stories. I can write the first ten chapters of a story and never know the color of my protagonist’s hair, only to find out randomly one day in the middle of an unrelated sentence. I never “flesh out” my characters; I just sort of get to know them as I go along. I don’t create them, they just show up.

I have a little fancy that in my head somewhere there’s a sort of super-dimensional office that characters come to from fairyland (or Faerie, if you want to sound more grown-up) to interview for a role in my stories. Frankly, though, this metaphor is hardly accurate. In reality, there’s no interviewing. The characters just barge into my office and won’t go away, and they bring their stories and their worlds along with them. I have practically nothing to do with it.

I used to try to make outlines for my stories, to try to get a better idea of what I was doing ahead of time, but, once again, the outlines just sort of made themselves up. I never followed a formula like The Hero’s Journey, and I doubt I really could if I felt like trying. I had enough trouble sticking to the outlines I created myself. Honestly, my “outlines” would kind of end up turning into narrative and description anyway, the story just writing itself despite my intentions to create a framework to flesh out later.

I don’t plan ahead for my stories anymore, because I never exactly know what’s going to come next. I mean, I have a rough jumble of ideas in my head, but if I tried to write them out I’d either end up just writing the story or squeezing out a useless shell that I’d end up ignoring later on. Or worse, I’d expend all of that precious inspiration and be unable to revisit the idea because I already incarnated it into that outline. I have loads of outlines on my computer for stories I never wrote, and, sadly, will probably never write. I had the ideas, but instead of making a story out of them I made an outline, and then the inspiration tap shut off and that was that.

Once again, I can’t write something just because I want to. I probably can’t even come up with a simple character or a plotline unless it shows up in my head ready-made, or at least ready to be explored and discovered through writing. It all depends on that stream of inspiration.

I’ve never, ever sat down and made a character based on a pile of pre-requisites or advice. I almost never make a character because they are necessary to the plot, and the one time I did in the past few years it was so disastrous it destroyed the entire story. I’ve never put together a backstory for a character or come up with a motive. All that sort of thing was already part of the character. Generally speaking, I can feel why a character would do something and how they would act without thinking about it, and I learn where they come from, once again, by just writing them. I don’t plan, I don’t prep, I don’t worldbuild, I don’t invent, I just write.

Now, I’m not trying to brag, or even say this is a good thing. If anything, I think it speaks very low of me. I call myself a writer, but I can’t easily control what I write or when I’m “inspired” to write it. It’s like I’m a sojourner in Faerie, finding things I cannot fathom and being gifted graces I cannot fitly use. I have millions of ideas and characters and worlds, and they never stop coming, but I can’t plan for them and I definitely can’t accommodate them all.

My real question, though, is not why I have all of this stuff in my head, or where it comes from, or why on earth it picked me out of all the writers in the world, but if anyone else has this same experience. Does anyone else write like this, or meet their characters like this, or discover their worlds like this? Or does everyone follow those online writing guides and meticulously plan out their characters and what they mean and how they appeal to popular culture?

Maybe most people write like I do and they just don’t talk about it. Or maybe I’m an odd duck. Or maybe I’m raving mad. Who knows? Seriously, do you know?

I’m genuinely curious.

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4 thoughts on “What is this “Inspiration” thing, anyway?

  1. I’m hoping get some responses here, because now I’m curious too… I think that Tam writes more like you do, and I know that my little bit of writing experience is more like what you describe — at least enough that I recognize what you’re talking about… this is how my songs come… they just come… sometimes I have to fight a bit to get the words to say what I want them to, but the essence of the song itself just comes…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “Juicing a lemon with a pillow”! LOL!
    A lot of the meta aspects of this are sounding really familiar. I mean, I _do_ worldbuild, but a lot of that is just my own personal interest. Even then, it feels more like discovery than some intentional, overengineered process. The world of whatever story or story fragment I’m writing seems to be already out there in some numinous form; my flights of worldbuilding are more a case of mentally cruising around that world saying “hey, isn’t this cool?”. Or some part of the world impinging itself on my thought space and demanding focus.
    A lot like what you said about your characters, actually; though with scifi stories I do try to have at least a vague idea of what sort of tech we’re dealing with, at least on the “slip-drive vs point-to-point spacewarp vs hyperspace vs stargate” kind of level. I’d be the same with the way my magic works in a fantasy novel, if magic was a major part of it. But even that will be a case of having the initial inspiration and then discovering the details. That’s fun for me, not work. I just like _systems_ like that.
    I am discovering, however, that I think I need to never pick up another “how to be a better writer”-type guide ever again, because I read a couple fairly recently and my writing’s gone all stilted and overthought ever since. I was much more fluent and my stories flowed better before I read all that stuff on plot and epic themes and characters.
    Whenever I try to follow the “textbook format” and actually come up with a real plot outline or characters (or even world) first, I kill the story. The way I write, my whole plot outline can be summed up in the single idea-statement of the inspiration as it came to me and got me writing. And I can and do carry that in my head.
    Like you, I find that either the inspiration to write is there or it isn’t. It won’t be forced and it won’t be contained, but at the same time I’m quite distractable by the _next_ “ooh, shiny!”_ new_ inspiration. I get a lot of ideas, which is why most of them never develop beyond the vague plotlike idea or miniscene stage.
    I also found the “I have no idea where my ideas come from” statement to ring true. I can see elements of other writing in what I’m doing sometimes, but that’s usually unconscious. Even the “recombinant” stories where I can clearly see “this part came from that book series, that came from this film, the other came from somewhere else”, the recombination takes place below the level of consciousness.
    My best and most fluent ideas come out of the interdimensional warpgate that is my mind. Otherspace has no maps, at least not in these parts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who writes this way. I do wonder now, though, if anyone actually finds those “how to write” books useful, or if those books are just written because all writers are fairly insecure and so they sell. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no real “right way” to write, and no real wrong ones, either.
      If I really think about it, I suppose I’ve done some worldbuilding-ish scribbles in my head before about magic systems and so forth. Nothing technical, just a general idea of what I’m dealing with, as you said. Once again, though, it’s never thought out and never engineered. It’s just discovered as I go along.
      Also, totally with you on the whole killing the story through trying to outline it.
      I will admit to being very easily distracted by new inspiration. I’ve always got way too many ideas bouncing around. Buildup from the slow drip of the tap of inspiration, I suppose you could say.
      I like the warpgate metaphor. “Othersppace has no maps…” I couldn’t agree more.

      Liked by 1 person

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