How to find inspiration: a guide for novelists
By Michelle Barker
Emily Dickinson once wrote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I think she was also describing the physical experience of inspiration.
Last week I was on my bike, which is a common place for inspiration to visit me, because it knows (a) I’m not stopping, and (b) even if I did stop, I don’t have a pen. I was thinking about my new novel, which is still in the idea stage, and I’d been stymied by something that I wanted to use symbolically. I knew I hadn’t hit on the right thing yet, and it was bothering me. All of a sudden that morning it came to me, literally as if it had fallen from the sky. I knew immediately that it was right, because I got cold all over. That is my body’s reaction to a good idea. Emily needed to lose the top of her head. I need to feel as if I’ve just brushed past a ghost.
I don’t know what inspiration is. I only know you have to remain open to it at all times, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to show up. More often than not, it acts like my cat: the more I want her to sit with me, the more time she spends under the bed. And then when I least expect it, she leaps onto my desk and hangs out with me for the entire afternoon.
One year I tried courting inspiration by committing myself to writing a poem a day. It was an interesting experiment for a number of reasons, not least of which was that I produced a lot of poetry. But it also taught me how to pay attention to ideas. By the end of my day, no matter what, I had to have a poem in my notebook. Coming up with 365 ideas for poems isn’t easy (in all honesty, I think I ended up with about 340). So I was on the lookout for ideas all day long, paying attention, eyes, ears, and heart open. It was a great way to live as a writer. A lot of bad poems came out of that experiment, to be sure, but a few good ones too.
Now, as I work on my new novel, I’m doing something similar. I’ve committed to writing daily in my journal about things that are related to the novel—whether it’s a scene, or notes on character development, or ideas about plot. I cannot count on inspiration to meet me halfway every day. That’s not its style. But it knows where I am. It knows that every day I’m making an effort to develop the novel. And every so often it pops in and adds a few words.
The daily commitment is important. I know from previous experience: if I neglect the work, there’s a danger it will... well, fizzle out.
Elizabeth Gilbert explains it better than that (of course) in her wonderful book on creativity called Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. She talks about ideas as actual things that come knocking on your door. Sometimes they bang loudly. Most often, though, they just peer in through the window and you have to be there to open it. Once they’re inside, you have to keep plying them with whatever it is they want: tea, whiskey, good conversation. They need to know you’re interested—otherwise, eventually, they’ll slink away and approach someone else instead.
Refusing to work until inspiration shows up is not an option. Inspiration won’t put in an appearance if you aren’t there first, trying to get words down on paper. It needs to know where to find you.
So, settle in with your notebook or laptop or whatever works best for you, and work. Even if it’s hard. Especially then.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.