Monday 12 October 2020

Notes on Inspiration by Vanessa Harbour

Finding inspiration
Family photo

 I was recently asked what do I do when I am stuck for inspiration. Makes a change from ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ It did make me think though as inspiration is such a tricky thing. How do you describe inspiration for a start? Some definitions are:

The process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative; 


      A sudden brilliant or timely idea.

          But let’s be honest, inspiration is like trying to pin down smoke or early morning mist. It’s there for a moment, floats by, and then it’s gone. It’s down to you to make something from that glimmer as it passes.

I don’t know about you, but I find that inspiration doesn’t come by command, that’s why I always carry a notebook, so I can note down those brief ideas (or these days put them on my phone maybe). I can then go back to them at a later date to see if I think they have legs.

Pablo Picasso - Getty Images

There is the often touted, including by myself, quote by Pablo Picasso who supposedly said ‘Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’ This sounds great and I can see the point, but I often find inspiration comes to me when I least expect it and not when I am staring at a blank page. Yes, you do need to get into the habit of writing and there is no point in waiting for inspiration. There are times when you need to just get on and write. It is a job for a lot of us. However, sometimes when you have a knotty plot issue you need to give your brain headspace in order for inspiration to come along and solve the problem. Staring at it, in my experience, won’t help.

I love the anecdote – which may be true or not – of the American singer-songwriter, Tom Waits, who apparently, while driving one day had an idea for a new song float into his head, and promptly shouted at the sky: ‘Can’t you see I am driving?’ I can empathise with this though. How often does it happen when you have a tricky plot situation that you can’t see your way out of for the solution to appear at the most inconvenient moment: in the shower, while driving, out walking, while cooking/cleaning, in the middle of the night. I have been known to pull the car over and dictate my ideas into the phone there and then so I don’t forget them.

I have learnt after many years that if I am struggling to walk away from my manuscript and let the latent processing do its thing. I do mindless and repetitive activities such as ironing or gardening or go for a walk. Anything that gives the brain the space to work its way through the knotty plot issue. Inevitably, it will come up with the solution along with several other ideas, which all make the manuscript better. Reminding me that writing is definitely not a sprint, it is a marathon.

Latent processing

I remember as a beginner writer I was always terrified that I’d never get another idea and used to try and force them. I now know that does not work. You have to trust your brain and let it do its work. But you also have to feed it. This nourishment allows you to ‘dwell in possibilities’ as suggested by Emily Dickinson thereby finding those inspirations and creating ideas.

I feel I need to confess a little here. Lockdown proved to be a huge bonus for feeding the grey matter. There were so many wonderful opportunities. I got to see events such as Zoonation performing The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, I saw Hamilton, plus various other theatre productions that I’d never normally be able to see due to either financial or physical constraints. I wandered virtually around numerous museums from around the world including going behind the scenes. Seeing incredible art and artefacts. I got to attend incredible author talks at the Hay Festival and Edinburgh Book Festival. Both places I have dreamt of going to. This year I was there. I was part of it and it was amazing. 

All of it inspirational, giving my creativity life. 

What do you do to feed your brain and help your inspiration?

 Dr Vanessa Harbour



Nick Garlick said...

One thing I've discovered: start working on one story, and ideas for another will pop uninvited into my head. Start working on *that* and ideas for the first will arrive!!!!!!!!!!!

Ness Harbour said...

So true Nick!

Nick Garlick said...

Oh, and I love the Tom Waits story.