I’ve been drinking. Let’s talk about inspiration.
It is a myth. I think so, authors think so, artists think so. It is a romantic myth, though; sitting in a dark room and suddenly a flash of insight into this brilliant place and time, these vibrant characters and you think I have to write now! SO you dash over to your book/laptop/chalkboard or WHATEVER and you start putting this vision down in your medium of choice with this fever that pushes your hand, and directs your movements and suddenly you’re brilliant.
Only it never happens like that, does it? You get some of your ideas down and then you start to refine it, getting behind the curtain to see how it works, only it doesn’t. Your inspiration only lasts for a few moments and then it’s gone, wherever it came from and you’re left with the bill. Now you have a choice: wait for inspiration to strike, or wade into the muck and see where it goes?
WRONG you don’t wait for inspiration you Do The Work.
These blog posts about writing? I don’t get inspired to write them. I don’t suddenly think yes now is the time I will talk about where ideas are born and then here I am, poking my nose where it don’t belong. I think about what I believe, and I think about what other people do, and I make a list of the topics I might find interesting. Maybe I see some good articles while I’m snorting lines of internet and something resonates with me. I’ll mark it for later and let it cook in my brain on the backest burner I have. Days later, WEEKS, I’ll come back to it and take a little taste to see if it’s ready. I’ll reread it, read a collection of other articles, put on some music, and start responding to the muse inside.
My point is I have a system for nonfiction, opinion-based writing that I can toss some inputs in one end, and wind up with material on the other. Fiction, poetry, matters of the heart are another problem with their own system that, I admit, I don’t use nearly often enough. I don’t know you, or what you create, or why, or how, or if you have a system or not, but there’s one thing that works for me that I’ve gone back to, time and again. I don’t remember where I saw it first, but it was called a Word Kenning.
A cursory wiki on the term kenning gives back: the form of a compound that employs figurative language in place of a more concrete single-word noun. That isn’t helpful, but it’s close to what I do, which is to parse a sample of text selected at random and create a form around it. I’ll do an example, and you can do it along with me!
Go find a book, I’m fucking serious.
Ok got it? Flip it open to a random page somewhere in the middle and slap your finger down on a word. Write down the three words preceding it, the word, and the three following it. Doesn’t matter if it’s a fragment, doesn’t matter if the sentence ends somewhere in there and another starts. Maybe that’s better because the task, the inspiration struggle, is only having five minutes to write something that has those seven words in it, in that order. Five minutes to turn flailing and babble into those seven words, any way you can.
My words came from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Birth-Mark, and read as follows:
lifetime of any mortal at whom you
and the five minutes yield the following:
The curse followed at dawn, that rising orb the starting gun and signal light, whichever you choose to call it. The flaking of skin, the confused looks and disgust apparent on the face of my wife the surest proof my time had come to an end. I lived well, what lifetime of any mortal at whom you might draw a measure against, but for nought, it seems, on this morning now. I had a nightmare, the night before, of a crow I shot as a child. I was ill-tempered and, seeing it perched on a fence some distance away, chose to release my shot into it rather than the target some distance away. It fell, dead, and I felt a moment of pride. I had done this! It passed quickly as my grandfather admonished me with words, and my father with his belt, a the carelessness of my actions.
In my nightmare, it flew down to peck at me, and scarecly could I move to escape its torment. It slowly pulled away my skin, to find tendon and pull it free from my arms, to hop up my body and make motion for my eyes. At first one, then the other, before I woke in a sweat. And now, over this breakfast I sweat still, but see the blood drip into my food. My wife, my dear wife, how pale she looks! I cannot keep my strength, I hope she forgives me a nap at the table this last morning.
I had no idea what I would write, and neither will you. Take whatever you do write and keep it somewhere. Do this exercise as often as you like and keep these together. Pull them out when you need an idea or two, or do a new one. It’s surprisingly fun.
I’d love to hear from some of you nonfiction blogger types. Maybe some of you are philosophers, or biologists, or some third, more special thing. Leave a comment and tell me what you do for inspiration, as long as it isn’t download-all-the-pictures-and-look-at-them-until-they-get-made-into-wallpapers. Because I already do that.