Lyndsey Garrett discusses inspiration, themed writing and deadlines
Being hit by inspiration is a fantastic, occasionally frightening, experience. There’s an unreality to it: an idea rising from nothing for which anything could be possible, with so many avenues to explore. Such moments become a haze of manic creativity; feverishly writing down every thought even if it is just one word on a scrap of post-it. As adrenaline-heavy as these moments are, they aren’t sustainable. Inspiration has to be nurtured from that high intensity into a creative mindset that flows.
Inspiration is also fickle, refusing to stick to a regular timetable. When other things are occupying your time, it suddenly rears up: an explosive creative burst that demands to be noted down lest it be forgotten within the next few minutes. Then there are the times when you’ve set the scene — you’ve settled yourself just so, ready for inspiration to call. Except the muse has taken off for the evening. Like the heatwave this summer, we stand waiting for that first drop of rain, the first strike of lightning to break the oppressive weight of our creative dry spell.
Holding out for that initial hit can prove a long and unfulfilling process. Too many factors have an influence on whether or not we feel inspired or inspired to act. Writing, one of the greatest pleasures, can also be a time of crippling self-doubt and feelings of inferiority. These views can be exacerbated when we are uninspired, getting further bogged down in our own creative lull.
For a long time, I wouldn’t write anything until I had an idea that met a very precise, and arbitrary, set of conditions. The idea had to be perfect from that first moment. Setting the standard so high meant that I didn’t feel like I was failing at writing — I wasn’t writing because I hadn’t had a moment of inspiration or, more precisely, the right inspiration. In many ways, inspiration became the excuse for not pushing myself further. If I didn’t try, then I couldn’t fail. Not a productive approach, and one that always left me feeling worse about my capabilities as a writer.
So, what to do when inspiration doesn’t strike? There are many actions we can follow to trigger our creative thought processes, or just to make a start on writing. A quick Google search for ‘writing prompt’ reels off hundreds of pages of results, from opening sentences to setting descriptions and photographs. We can use these as a starting point to begin writing, see where the narrative takes us even if we don’t experience a flash of creative insight. It’s surprising what we can conjure from just a line or two of prompt, or photographs of a discarded shoe or set of keys.
Themed writing, a parallel to more traditional writing prompts, is a tactic sometimes employed by literary journals and writing magazines where a specific theme is proposed for submissions. Mslexia, a women writers’ magazine, regularly sends out such requests, and have offered themes such as magic, weather, and cooking for their open submissions segment. The independent publisher 404Ink, has released four themed journals in the last two years; error, the ‘f’ word, power, and ink. Themes give an initial seed for the brain to work on, but your mind can run in whichever direction it wants to. In many ways, a theme provides a looser frame for a writer, with all the advantages and disadvantages that freedom entails.
For me, themed writing is an interesting experiment. There are themes I’m more drawn to; one look at my bookshelves shows a distinct leaning (and bowing of shelves) to science fiction and fantasy. While any theme could be told from a science fiction or fantasy angle, I’ve tried to use it to explore writing outside of those genres; to use it as an exercise to expand my own writing. I’ve had mixed results: some first drafts look promising and others may as well be consigned to the darkest corner I can find to bury them in. But even those won’t be thrown away, they’re still part of this journey to write.
Sometimes there are time constraints which don’t give us the option to wait for inspiration. On a Creative Writing BA, I’ve had to get used to deadlines pretty quickly. Even if those deadlines start off months away they never stay distant for long. Beyond work, school, or university deadlines, there are deadlines in writing competitions or open submissions. Deadlines remove the luxury of time; you can’t spend months or years working a piece towards something resembling ‘good enough’ when it needs to be submitted next week.
Writing to a deadline forces you to spend your time wisely. I still procrastinate. My place never looks cleaner or more organised than when I’ve an assignment looming. But I’ve come to accept that an element of procrastination is part of the process and factor that in to my schedule. It’s like a purging; clearing everything else so that the mind, and the physical space, is ready for creating and editing.
Because of this tightness in time, I’ve learnt to be kinder to myself in first drafts; there simply isn’t time to worry over those initial ideas if I want to get to an end point. It’s still a hard journey, writing things that in your heart you know are going to be edited out, but for now they get you from start to finish. Coming up with an idea on a deadline is a challenge I’m still working on. Sometimes, it’s taking anything that might do and pushing it to its extremes to see just what could come of it. Everything can be adjusted in editing. Some of those edits have to be ruthless, as an idea has failed to take hold on the first run, but the editing process can kick start a fresh take on the idea or redirect it to something more compelling.
Inspiration can come in many forms and can hit us by a variety of methods. We should never dismiss the importance of those dizzying moments where inspiration strikes, but neither should we forget that there are ways to trigger those moments for ourselves. To kick start the creative process is simply allowing ourselves the chance to try, fail and try again.