The great advantage of being a writer is that you can spy on people. You’re there, listening to every word, but part of you is observing. Everything is useful to a writer, you see – every scrap, even the longest and most boring of luncheon parties.
– Graham Greene
It amazes me how the smallest detail can inspire my imagination to create a story. I was recently asked what prompted me to start writing fiction. The memory came back as vivid as if it happened yesterday. I was in sixth grade, a School Safety Patroller, doing her job at lunchtime outdoors in front of the elementary school. The early autumn sun blazed and warmed the air. A street storm drain caught my attention, specifically its cover. It had a parallel horizontal metal grill that reminded me a bit of train tracks. The thought prompted a question: what kind of being would be able to “walk” on such a track? My mind filled with images of a jungle planet without solid ground but walkways of tracks like that drain cover. The inhabitants had developed an organic wheel that served as feet at the bottom of one thick but flexible leg. I wrote a story about one of these inhabitants, and my sixth grade teacher read the story aloud to my class.
Do you know inspiration when you see it? I must confess that it usually sneaks up on me and pounces when I least expect it. My best stories come when I’m doing something else away from my desk, usually. I rarely feel inspired sitting at my desk, staring at my computer monitor or at a blank notebook page. There are three things that I can do to inspire inspiration, though. None of them involves writing.
Taking a Shower: I have no idea why some of my best ideas come to me when I’m in the shower. Is it the sensation of water spraying on my head and body? Is it the steamy air? Or is it just being relaxed, feeling clean, smelling fresh, and the soothing comfort of a water massage? Probably all of the above. The minute I step under the water, my mind wanders and my imagination begins to play. Daydreaming. My mind wanders through narrative problems, character issues, story needs. Usually, ideas begin to bubble with the soap.
Listening to Classical Music: I can be sitting in a concert listening to the Minnesota Orchestra, sitting on my sofa listening to classical music radio, or walking with my Sony Walkman, it doesn’t matter. Since I was very young, when I’ve listened to classical music, my imagination has been released to frolic or create. This is my favorite way to invite inspiration for a play date with my imagination.
Cleaning: I’ve heard other creative types comment that doing something boring and unrelated to their art almost always stimulates their imaginations and sparks inspiration. I truly detest housecleaning. To me, it’s the epitome of boring. When I have a lot of time, though, and one particularly thorny writing problem I need to solve, cleaning can be just the thing. Combining physical exertion with boredom (like working out, too) creates the perfect condition for my mind to go off on journeys and adventures with my imagination.
And then there’s the stuff that Graham Greene mentions in the quote above. Just like my experience with the street storm drain, details in our environments can spark ideas, serving as inspiration. Watching people works especially well for me — airport waiting areas, city buses, restaurants, clinic waiting areas. Maybe it’s the woman dressed to the nines walking down a city street in an undeveloped area. Or it’s the guy wearing a plaid flannel shirt under a sport jacket. People behave in unique ways, and it can be fun to imagine the reasons behind the behavior.
All of these things to spark inspiration won’t work, though, unless I’m open to receiving it. Be open, think open, want open. The image I use in my mind is actually video: the opening credits of Martin Scorcese’s movie The Age of Innocence. The visuals are a series of opening flowers. It’s gorgeous, accompanied by lush music.
Maybe you have places full of details that can fuel your imagination, or things you do to prime yourself to receive inspiration. Please share your favorites in the comments below.