Writing Inspiration for the Uninspired

In The Autobiography of Mark Twain (edited by Charles Neider, but possibly in other arrangements of his autobiography), Twain writes about “filling the well” when he experiences writer’s block (he doesn’t call it writer’s block, which sounds like a place where authors live). One of the techniques that worked for him was playing billiards. Just like the most productive workers aren’t the ones who regularly put in overtime, but rather the ones who are able to balance work with play, so the most effective writers aren’t the ones who sit down every day and pound out something on the computer, but rather the ones who take time to “fill the well” when inspiration leaves them. And make the habit of sitting down every day and writing something, but never mind that.

Here are some of the techniques I’ve discovered work well for filling that well for when I’m not feeling well about my writing well. It’s not a profound list, but it is a true one.

Go for a walk

Star this one, circle it, highlight it, staple it to your forehead, commit it to memory. Going for a walk is one of the best things to do when the writing isn’t coming. Heck, just getting outdoors has miraculous healing powers. If you can’t go outside, doing exercise or movement of any kind tends to help.

Clean

A cluttered house often makes a cluttered mind. There’s something about the physical act of cleaning up your workspace/room/house that lends itself to uncluttering your mind, too. It also has to do with that movement thing I mention above.

Read

Inspiration for writing comes from what you read, so if you’re stuck, reading a book can help. In fact, you should be reading at least as much as you write. And while you can read something that directly influences your writing (such as reading the same genre of book), it’s more important to choose something that inspires you and is well-written. If you’re reading something that’s poorly written, you can learn a lot about what not to do, but you won’t draw much inspiration from the words.

Be sociable

Contact with people is essential to writing about people. Even if you’re writing about pigeons, you should hang out with people.

Listen to music

Probably not something with lyrics. I find classical music works well. What you want is a mood, or at least something to distract the part of your brain that hates you and doesn’t want you to be a writer.

Play

Like Twain playing billiards, sometimes you should put aside the writing for a bit and do something purely for fun. When you come back to it, you’ll find that your well has miraculously refilled itself. Or that you’re an expert billiard player.

Updates, Childhood, and Stephen King

Already knowing that I wanted to be a writer at a young age, I wrote a letter to Stephen King when I was eleven years old, asking for writing advice. This was long before he’d written On Writing. In fact, now that I think of it, I wrote it almost 30 years ago. Since I didn’t know his street address, I addressed it to “Stephen King, Bangor, ME.”

Back then, I was a huge Stephen King fan. Okay, so I’d only read one of his books at that point: my real King years would stretch from middle school through high school. Still, The Eyes of the Dragon remains one of my favorites, and I’ve read it more than any other book.

I don’t remember how long it took to receive a reply, but I did receive one, and it made me and my mom laugh hard, since it was a form letter that apologized for being a form letter and assured me that my letter had been read. With the form letter was the much sought-after writing advice I’d asked for, based on an article King had written. It was called, “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully – in Ten Minutes.” And while you can find links to it online (such as this one), they don’t include the edit marks that are in my copy.

Flash forward to yesterday, when I watched the first part of IT, the 2017 movie (not the 1990 miniseries). While much is changed from the book (including a smart decision to update the childhood portion to the 80s), its tone and essence, and the camaraderie among members of The Losers’ Club, is captured much better than in the miniseries. And some of the details that are changed are for the better — at least when you don’t have over a thousand pages to play with.

Seeing the movie led to two realizations: I really want to read the book again (which I initially finished over the course of a summer), and my first novel bears similarities to King’s work — which would make sense, since I first conceived it in that style and it deals with evil in a small town, which tends to be a King specialty. In fact, one of the reasons I wanted to see the movie was to find out what worked (and why), and how I could use that information to make my novel better, since I’ve been working on it, off-and-on, for almost for two decades.

Another tool to jog my memory has been home movies. Over the course of the past few Christmases, my dad had all our home movies put on Blu-rays. Over the past week, I’ve been sampling one Blu-ray in particular, since it covers the same time period in my life as my protagonists. Some of what I’m picking up are speech patterns, but also, the FEEL of those times. You can capture all the details in the world, but if you can’t capture what it feels like to be your characters living in that place at that time, you might as well be writing a research paper.

Watching these movies has been odd. I remember the events portrayed in them, but I can’t remember much beyond what the camera shows. And then I’m looking at myself from almost 30 years ago, and I’m closer in age now to that of my parents in the video. And yet, I feel I’m closer to capturing the essence of what I originally wanted this novel to say than when I started it. Maybe all I needed was to be old enough to forget my childhood, so that I could be reminded of it again.

Broken Promises

Most artists leave unfinished work behind, and not just due to death. Sketches that never materialized into something important enough to paint, rough drafts that never coalesced into a comprehensible story, notes that never formed a memorable melody. Even this blog has promised posts on everything ranging from favorite authors to essays coinciding with the 10-year anniversary of my journey to Japan (and which now I think would’ve been simpler had I merely transcribed my diary entries, rather than trying to create something new out of them. Heck, I could’ve combined them with my emails home as an interesting compare/contrast, or used one to delve deeper into the other. So many options!). Though, in the case of my blog, many of those planned posts never even made it to the rough draft stage.

The thing about unfinished work is that, so long as I’m alive, the hope remains that they’ll become something finished. For example, on my Murmurs from the Balcony blog, I’m still working on Sakura-Con posts from two years ago. I may not finish all the ones I promised, but I still hope to post what I have, timeliness be damned. In this case, the posts are unfinished because I lacked time to put in the effort needed to write and release them in a timely manner. I also blame slow Internet, which I’ve since rectified.

One other reason for unfinished work is lack of practice. The first poems and short stories I wrote are awful because they are my first attempts. Even the good first attempts aren’t better than my later work, but since every story and poem and novel are their own unique creation, earlier work is not necessarily worse than later work, provided that I’ve practiced enough to where the form frees me, rather than confines me. And since I keep changing as a person, so does my writing style, which makes writings from different stages of my life not so much like comparing apples and oranges as comparing pineapples and guacamole.

A third reason for unfinished work is because it’s not worth finishing. When art ends in a dead end, you must abandon the effort. Other times it drains too much of your life force for you to be able to continue without harm to yourself. Sometimes these unfinished works are released as-is, or with someone else completing the idea. Better to feed it to the fire, or to researchers interested in the creative process: these efforts will only tarnish the reputation of the artist in the public’s eye, and is often used as a money grab. Does that mean the artist is always right about the quality of their work? No, which is why someone with taste in art should appraise unreleased work before letting it roam free among the populace. But in general, unfinished work — as opposed to finished work which is withheld — is meant to perish in anonymity.

And finally, some work isn’t finished because it requires an older, wiser, more skilled person to create it. Recognizing that quality is something that separates a true artist from a layman, the latter of whom will not recognize that art, and not the artist, dictates its creation. Many of da Vinci’s works were subject to this holding back. Even the Mona Lisa was technically “unfinished” at his death — not because the painting wasn’t done, but because it could never be done so long as da Vinci was living and learning new ways to paint.

In conclusion, don’t be afraid of incomplete work. Speaking to writers (and I speak from experience), don’t feel that everything you write needs to be published. Hang on to your unfinished work, for it may spark a better work in the future, but realize that, just as life ends with goals left unrealized and things left undone and knowledge left unknown, so art, too, is often left unfinished at the time of its completion.