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BACCA Writers

Inspiration – Two Ways

Is inspiration something that comes to you, or is it something you can go after?

For a nonfiction book I’m writing, I’ve been asking that question. My new book offers practices to supercharge your creative flow, ways to harness the creativity tools you already use, and ideas for applying your big-picture vision to everyday tasks. So you can imagine that inspiration is pretty central to the entire book.

I’ve come to see that, for me, there’s more than one kind of inspiration.

tree canopy with sky above
Mother Nature comes through with inspiration. Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

Receiving the Cosmic Download

This is the kind we’ve all seen portrayed in movies, fiction, and other popular culture. It comes from outside ourselves. In this scenario, we’re powerless to resist. The upside? Van Gogh’s sunflowers and starry night skies. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Or so we’re led to believe. However, being ravished by inspiration, while certainly dramatic, may not be what I need on a Tuesday afternoon.

For one thing, this kind of inspiration visits now and then – if we’re lucky. It may never visit at all, and, if it drops by, may never return. What then? Are we destined to languish as passive vessels, waiting for another dose? That seems a bit boring. Also ineffective. And immensely frustrating.

Also, this external kind of inspiration is likely to show up more often if we make it welcome. A great way to do that is to seek little bits of inspiration on the regular.

Seeking Inspiration

Can we intentionally go after inspiration? Why not? True, the big kind – when a whoosh of ideas, energy, direction, emotion, and inspiration manifests in your awareness unbidden – is powerful, and wonderful to experience. In fact, everything I’m doing with my new book will make the “whoosh” kind of inspiration want to visit. We’re putting out the welcome mat for it.

There’s a powerful argument, though, for a more active version. The kind that, when you make up your mind to seek it out, is often less big, and also can be much more frequent. I believe in cultivating this kind, the kind that doesn’t need to come from outside yourself. We can invite it in by focusing on something in our environment.

If I’m feeling a little lacking in creative get-up-and-go on that Tuesday afternoon, I can take steps – manageable steps – to go after some inspiration. Two perennially powerful go-tos are taking time with nature, and practicing focused breathing. After all, the root of the word ‘inspiration’ is the word for breath. I propose three other small tools here, adaptable even to urban living.

lightbulb held in the air
Odd juxtapositions can be inspiring. Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash
  • Notice Five Things

I can go for a walk around the block and commit to noticing five things I’ve never noticed before. The way a roofline meets a downspout. The contrast of a child’s yellow toy with the bark of a tree. The sounds of traffic combined with the squeak of a loose road sign in the wind. The cloud formation that looks like layers in a parfait. The smell of burgers and coffee from the diner. Just focusing my senses on my direct experience can act as a palate-cleanser and send me back to work with new ideas and a clear head.

  • Describe to an Alien

Or I can stay home and change my position, from desk to couch, for instance, and sit there. After a quiet moment, I can choose something to look at closely. Then I can find words, the most accurate words possible – crossouts are permitted – to describe my selected object to an alien, without naming the object or its function, as though my visitor has no frame of reference for this thing. By changing my language, I’m playing 52 pick-up with my assumptions and opening up my imagination. A stapler, a coffee table, or a frying pan will look different to you after you do this. Your work is likely to look different, as well.

  • Tour the Vault

A third way I can get inspired is to take a look at things I have stashed away in Evernote. (Needless to say, it doesn’t have to be Evernote specifically – that just happens to be the place I habitually tuck bits of information, examples of cool ideas, research, inventions, creative expressions, images, sounds, etc. For you it might be notebooks, scrapbooks, vision boards, a Pinterest page, a closet shelf, etc.) I am always pleasantly surprised at something that’s waiting in there. Makes sense, because I use it as a parking lot for things I don’t want to make room for in my awareness. And it does its job! When I visit, it’s like opening a treasure vault. I recently found great links to pertinent articles on topics of interest for a writing project.

Welcome them Both

underwater hand holding a sparkler
Surprise yourself. Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash

I believe that both forms of inspiration are important, and that it’s helpful to welcome them both into your creative life. They seem to get along well.

In fact, the best part, I feel, is that the more I seek it out, the more inspiration seems to be willing to come by for the big ‘whoosh’ moments. Somehow, it’s gotten the message that there’s a place for it here.

A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, provides creative coaching and full-service editing to authors and other creative people. Decks of 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, at the Chenille Books website, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase at Central Virginia booksellers and on Amazon

Categories
BACCA Writers

The Stories We Tell

I loved to make up stories when I was a kid. It seemed a simple, easy thing to do, back then. As I grew up, I stopped writing stories. Later, I committed to other art forms, and when I wrote sentences, I wrote nonfiction, not stories. Not long ago, I began again. I dared myself to try making up stories, by signing up for classes at WriterHouse.

Since then, I have slowly gotten more competent through practice, practice, and practice. My writer group, BACCA Literary, is one reason why. We first met, in fact, in a fiction class at WriterHouse.

This writer group has provided me with a monthly deadline for producing – well, something. We’ve been sharing work with one another for at least thirty months. I’ve emailed a Word document out to the others by the late-Friday deadline, every darn month. Well, there was one exception, when my family life was too chaotic, a couple of years ago. So let’s say I’ve been sharing work for at least 29 months and leave it at that.

Good Enough?

Sure, I recognize that I haven’t always sent my best work to the other three writers in the group. “Best” is relative, measured on a sliding scale. Over time, I raised my standards for what’s good enough to send out to the writer group members. After I allocated more time each month to work on writing, I became dissatisfied with my earlier stories. Now I can predict with confidence that the stories I am pleased with now will one day look a little shabby to me.

Your Best doesn't always look the same
Your Best doesn’t always look the same

Meanwhile, I have become less able to turn off the inner voice whispering, “Go ahead. Send something out and see if it gets published.” It was easy the first couple of years to hush that voice. I knew my work wasn’t ready to travel beyond the writer group.

For new-ish writers like me, hushing that voice gets trickier over time. We want to believe we’re improving. We want to believe there’s going to be an audience one day, however small or particularly quirky that audience may reveal itself to be. We want to nourish the creative spirit that energizes our whole enterprise. We want to begin to send work out to people – strangers – not in our writer group. I considered how to start.

The P-Word

To prepare to send work out into the world, I set up a spreadsheet to track my efforts to get published. Then I let the spreadsheet sit for quite a while, untouched. Later on, I added a tab to my spreadsheet with key facts on the publications that most appealed to me – things like deadlines, formatting preferences, lag time before they decide what to publish, method of submission, categories they favor, contact information, etc. The enhanced spreadsheet sat again, for a long break. More recently, I actually sent a few things out and made entries into the spreadsheet. I’ve heard back with two rejections, which I dutifully entered into the appropriate cells. I’m waiting for replies from the others.

I hesitated to send out my work until I felt satisfied enough with it that it didn’t feel too embarrassing. I chose carefully the places I sent those first few submissions – not too grandiose, and yet consistent with who I am as a writer.

And that just begs the questions, doesn’t it?

Questions

Who am I, as a writer, and why am I doing this? Author Dan Holloway, in his recent essay, What Do You Want from Your Writing in 2014 and Beyond? at Jane Friedman’s blog, says:

“If you don’t know what you want from your writing, what on earth are you doing writing anything? How can you possibly tell whether your words do what you want them to?”

It’s actually not that hard a question. It rests on a more fundamental one. Why do you write?”

Please don’t tell me the answer is “I make art because I must.” To me, that feels lazy and self-aggrandizing in a “poor-me,” humblebrag kind of way. Besides it ignores free will.

the words, Why Write?
Oh. THAT question.

I could tell you I write because I’ve engaged with the challenge to improve my work. The challenge is difficult enough always to involve real effort, yet rewarding enough, because of the progress I am making, to continue to motivate me to get better at it.

I could tell you I write because my life with music was altered when hand surgery made playing instruments too difficult. I could tell you I write because I’ve grown old enough to take a longer and more loving view of life. I could tell you that there’s plenty to love about writing for its own sake. Polishing a story can make my day, even when no one else has seen it yet.

Also, the most fun I’ve had with my writing lately was when some visiting non-literary friends asked me to read them a piece after I cooked them dinner. That was a blast. My fellow BACCA-ite, Claire Elizabeth Cameron, touched on this recently when she wrote,

“People are doing work for free, work for fun, work for creativity all over the place, and it’s making this world a better place. Success [in writing] is making a connection.”

So why am I writing? To get better at it. To see how much I can improve. To see if my embarrassment-meter gives me the green light to send out stories to more publications. To see if I receive a green light in return. And, in the meantime, to keep telling stories.

#amwriting

A M Carley

A M Carley is a co-founder of BACCA Literary. She owns and operates Chenille Books where she works with nonfiction authors.