Inspiration versus Perspiration

When someone asks me what I do I mumble that I’m a writer. Sometimes the next question is the brain twisting ‘So have you written anything I’ve read?’ But the most common question is ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ My answer is ‘Out of my head.’ But finding ideas when they don’t make a spontaneous appearance is something which interests me.
Writing a story in any medium is a journey. I have a few ways to find the tricky first step.

1) People watch. Observe people without judgement. Try to empathise, however unappealing you may find them. Few people believe they are evil, or venal, or corrupt. They find a way to justify their behaviour. Speculate. Try to look into their past and imagine how they got to be the person they are. What was their childhood like? Which events formed their worldview and shaped their character?

2) Setting. I return to some places time and again in my mind’s eye. I often picture a grove of trees in Durham ; a street in Sienna, a rooftop flat in the Marais. I have no idea why these places come to mind – perhaps they resonate with events that took place there. You will have similar places in your own mind’s eye. Write down notes about these evocative settings. Try to capture the way these places affect your senses – sight, sound, scent, touch and, if it’s appropriate, taste.

3) Listen to music. I find instrumental music to be the best – I can’t have anyone cluttering up my mind with their words – it gets in the way! I need access to the voice in my head. So I listen to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue or Sketches of Spain. Another favourite is the guitar playing of Django Reinhardt or Julian Bream – something like Recuerdos de la Alhambra. If it must have words, then something like Bailero from “Chants d’Auvergne” by Joseph Marie Canteloube – nice tune and I haven’t a clue what they’re singing about. For the same reason I listen to FIP Radio – good music, but the DJs talk in French, so it’s not distracting.

4) Keep a notebook close to hand. Carry one and keep one by the bed. If you can’t find one, write your idea on a napkin or fag packet. Otherwise, you’ll forget it….

5) Tell yourself a story while you are falling asleep.

6) Write about your passions. Why do you enjoy collecting socks or extreme ironing? Think of your hero or heroine. Give them a similar passion.

7) Freewrite. Choose a subject and write continuously for a while without lifting your pen from the page. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar. Don’t censor yourself – just write. This way you access your subconscious and often surprise yourself, discovering ideas you didn’t know you had.

8) Walk. It’s so important to switch off the everyday concerns and access your mind’s alpha state. There is something about the rhythm of walking which does this. I find it helps if you are blocked.
For example, you may have a great beginning but don’t know how to end the story. Stories are circular. The central character will end up in the same place – geographical, physical, situational – but everything will have changed. They possess new knowledge, or skills, or have been changed in some way. Walking frees the mind and allows you to examine all the possibilities. Write them down.
Before they float away…


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