Most of us here, I think, have commiserated from time to time about plugging along slowly on a book, getting down a few hundred words a day instead of a few thousand like we’d prefer. We’d like nothing better than to turn that tap on wide open, getting the full-blown flow of words that come so fast we can barely keep up. If only we could control that tap… but how?
I know of no one who possesses that secret. Sure, we’ve heard suggestions: lock yourself in a room, hang a sign on the door, notify family and friends to leave you alone until you surface again, keep noises and distractions to a minimum, employ favorite foods, drinks, music. Which is all fine and may set the scene, but does it actually open up that tap? Not usually.
Inspiration is wonderful. It fills us with giddy excitement. It probably acts more like a drug than we’d like to think, shooting our bodies through with adrenaline, firing the neurons in our brains, propelling us to lay down line after line of beautiful, iconic words. But, like a drug, it doesn’t last. And unlike a drug, we can’t just go buy some when we’re out.
Well, sign me up for the Nobel Prize in literature, because I may have found the answer.
I’ve always noticed that reading a great book—a great, well-written book—fills me with inspiration. Seeing how someone else has woven together the colors, the emotions, the scents, and sounds of a story into one glorious tapestry always sends me running for my computer. I am inspired by the odd twists of story line, by the unforgettable characters, by the unusual verbs that nail the action perfectly. When I find a book that does all this and more, it sets up a delicious tug-of-war. I want to stay in my chair and keep reading this heavenly book and find out what happens, but I also want to get my butt into my office and use this half-read novel as a springboard for my own creativity. Stay, and keep reading? Go, and write? It’s an ecstatic, painful dilemma.
I have several favorite books that will do this to me, not just the first time I read them but every time. I read them about once a year. I have battered paperbacks of them all that I’ve carted around with me for the past twenty years or so. Matter of fact, I have multiple battered paperbacks of each, just because I can’t stand the thought of ever not having these books within arm’s reach.
What are they? My top three are: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving; Six of One by Rita Mae Brown; and The Mirror by Marlys Millhiser. Every one of these books, even after twenty or thirty readings, makes me laugh out loud, makes me cry, makes me want to sing and dance. Every one of these inspires me to write my best—to write better than my best. Every one of these turns that tap on full.
So the other day, I struck upon a perfect solution to this push-pull problem. I’m reading The Mirror again, comfortably ensconced in my recliner. But at my elbow is a pad of blue line and a pen. I can read enough to get fueled up, finish a chapter or a scene or whatever, then put my Kindle down and reach for the blue line to write longhand on my WIP. The reading has opened up the tap. Now all I have to do is flow along with it.
I have a suspicion that writing in longhand is a large part of the success of this process. For whatever reason, writing at the computer has a sterility to it, an aloofness, a coldness. Writing in longhand just feels organic, it feels alive. And for whatever reason, channeling that inspiration from reading into the creativity of writing flows like Ginger Rogers following Fred Astaire’s lead, like Sirius rising at the heels of Orion, like a bee on a straight line to a newly-opened rose. (Can you tell I’m inspired?)
Obviously, I don’t know if this will work for you. But it might. Can’t hurt, right? What books fire your imagination, not just the first time when they’re all new and unknown and fraught with delicious tension, but every time you read them? What books have the kind of writing that you savor; you already know the story, so there’s no surprise there, but the manner in which you get there is like being carried effortlessly on gossamer wings. Which books carry you to these heights? Which books make it actually painful to put them down?
And how, after reading them, do you channel that inspiration into your own work?
22 thoughts on “Enticing the Muse: Forcing the Inspiration to Write”
Great post Melissa,
I too, get inspired when reading a great book. I don’t have any go to books that I go back to but the more I read the more I want to write. I remember early on in my writing career I read a book that was getting tons of press and it was supposedly the next great author. When I finished the book, I looked up and said, “I can do better than that.”
I’m not saying I’m a great author, but I realized then that writing is like anything else, you have to do it and get it out there and then you never know. Read, read, read really good books to get inspired. Then, throw in a clunker every once in awhile to boost your confidence. 🙂
Jim, funny because I said the exact same thing to myself early on. Was reading books that I knew I could write rings around–so I did. I guess any inspiration–from good books or bad–is good for us. Thanks for sharing.
It’s always good to see what works for others. We never know when something will trigger us in a good way.
For me, it’s quite different. I seldom re-read a book and I never write long-hand – I can’t read my own writing and my hand cramps almost immediately. For seeing the words printed on my screen makes the story come alive.
Vive la difference. 😀
True that, Yvonne. I’m finding that writing longhand is working much better for me right now. If I’m on the computer, it’s e-mail or FB dinging me, pulling me out of the story. I work much better away from the distractions.
I turn of the sound and my word doc fills the entire screen so I don’t see the distractions.
Obviously you are WAY more disciplined than I am!
Your article *itself* is inspiring! Re-reading books I love to inspire the muse is something I’ve done instinctively. Doing that deliberately with a pad and pen nearby is a brilliant idea and I’m going to try it. Thanks! (I’m so happy to find another fan of A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY!)
Candace, I’m not just a fan of Owen Meany, I’m rabid for it. As far as I’m concerned, it is the best book on the planet. I’ve moved on from The Mirror and am now on Six of One, another fabulous book packed with the most memorable characters you’ll ever run into. And the ploy is still working; I read until I am “filled up” with inspiration to the point that I can’t stand it, then grab my pad and pen. Just bought a ton more legal pads yesterday. I think I’m about 10k words into the new book, and that in just over a week.
Owen Meany is extraordinary. It’s perfection. And yes, possibly the best book on the planet. Now I’m going to have to read it again, tyvm. 🙂 AND check out the other two books you mention.
Props! A new book and 10K in a week!
The muse and I just made extensive notes for the final scene of my second novel. I had a final scene already, but this morning THE scene bubbled to the surface and I got it down on the screen. I even teared up, so I know it’s direct from the muse.
Like Yvonne, I can’t write longhand any more. But I can jot short, near illegible notes in a pinch. What I usually do is email ideas to myself from the phone on the nightstand in the middle of the night. 🙂
Great news about the final scene. Love it!
That’s really interesting, Melissa. I do love it when I read a great book and get inspired to write. I don’t think I have a go-to book, but anything that’s awesomely written is very inspiring. I don’t think I could write long-hand. Like Yvonne, I can’t read my writing, and I hate the process of transcribing. My husband (who’s a lawyer) tells me I should dictate, because that’s a great way to get lots down and then you just get it transcribed and edit the notes. Sounds interesting, but I still feel most comfy typing on my computer.
Luckily, RJ, we all get to do it the way that is most comfortable for us. Soldier on!
The book that does it for me is The River Why by David James Duncan.
Thanks, Richard, I’ll check it out. Can’t have too many go-to books.
Melissa, for years I relied on a favorite fountain pen to write longhand in a notebook. Strange things occurred when the ink hit the paper. Often, my handwriting changed, as if to match the personality of my characters. The words, although imperfect, flowed. Later, I could type up what I’d written, editing as I went along. The process put me deeper in touch with my characters and their stories. Now, if I’m stuck on a part, I take up my rollerball and the pen frees my mind from the “sterility” of writing at the computer. Works like a charm, every time!
Linda, I LOVE pens! Love rollerballs. Love your experience with them, too. That’s inspiring as well.
I don’t have one book to go to, and I rarely re-read a book either, but I do read every day. I read to hear the music of the words and rhythm develop into a complete song in my head. Reading inspires me – even not so well-written stories, or ones that don’t quite grab my inner consciousness – to try and write better, or at least as well. Hopefully, I’m honing my craft and developing a rhythm of my own.
Great post, Melissa. Thank you.
Thanks, Vicky. You’ve obviously found what works for you. The process might change, but all that matters is the result. Thanks for adding that.
Hugely inspiring post, Melissa, well done!
For me, anything by Wells as the vocabulary he employs is incredibly stimulating, and anything by Clavell because he handles a large cast so well yet keeps the action moving along at a fair clip. As for writing in longhand, if it works for you then fine, but I find that when things are flowing, I can’t write with my hand fast enough, so I always write on computer. Frankly speaking, I think it’s the only worthwhile use the bloody things have!
Gosh, am going to rush off and reread The Time Machine again now – thanks!
Lol, Chris; happy reading. As to writing longhand, mine gets pretty hard to read when I’m cranking, sometimes devolves into shorthand, but it works for me. If the muse fits…
I sometimes get inspired in the strangest of places: driving my tractor, milking the goats, mucking out horse stalls or chicken coops. Once in a while I get lucky and have some time to read and that does help. Recently my beloved laptop died and I now have a new one that’s taking some time to get used to– they keyboard is a bit funky– I’m not feeling comfortable enough to bang away on a novel just yet. Have tried the longhand approach and I soon realized I can’t read my own now-dismal chicken scratch! Think I’ll just take a week’s hiatus and let the dust in my life settle a bit.
Kathy, I hear you on that. I’m still dealing with the effects of a near-hit lightning strike a week ago, still trying to trace down all the wonky things that don’t work on my computer, and after all that mental output, I have no energy left for writing. Looks like I’ll have to get a new computer, and I hate to even think about setup. More days lost. Technology is wonderful–unless it isn’t.
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