One frequent piece of advice for avoiding writer’s block we hear is: write something, anything. But where do we start? How do we seek out and capture that elusive abstract we call inspiration?
I had the chance to lead a young writing group recently. I shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised at how strong their sense of what being writers means to them, firmly established at 15 or 16. These writers already have very specific reasons why they write and what purpose their writing serves. When we looked at those same big questions answered by famous authors (some great examples are quoted in Flavorwire and Bustle ), it turns out these young writers fit right in with the conversation.
It made sense to me that if we were going to create writing from scratch, we had to begin with inspiration.
For the first session, I brought inspiration with me. During this session we focused on story, following Cindy Huff’s theory about how people watching is an essential part of being a writer from “Write it Sideways.” I wanted to simulate the idea of writers being voyeurs without setting my teen writers up for an embarrassing situation in a library that was too small for unobtrusive observation.
First, each writer chose from a series of pictures I’d quelled from Creative Commons of people arguing (and one of two birds engaged in some kind of conflict). The picture set the scene, gave our stories a pair of characters, and an idea of an argument offered up instant conflict.
We went on to flesh out the main conflict we imagined was going on in the pictures we chose. After writing down initial impressions, I reemphasized that we don’t have to be confined to reality, that we were delving into fiction. Each time they wrote for about four minutes. Then we’d discuss and move on to the next step.
After coming up with some imaginative scenarios, we discussed beginnings, or, as writers and English teachers alike say, hooks. (See “Craft of Writing” and “Write it Sideways” for some good information.) We tried different ways to intrigue the reader, to be conscious of how much information we were sharing and not sharing from the beginning of our argument scene.
Then we discussed dialogue. Figuring out what each of the two characters would say to each other seemed to be the easy part for the group. The difficulty is in having the two actors speak differently and to show mannerisms or stage directions to show subtext. (See Sheila M. Good’s post “Tips for Writing Dialogue and Getting it Right” for concise information as well as helpful links and, for subtext, K.D. Dowdall’s “The Top 10 Elements of a Book People Want to Read!”)
Then we discussed how to close the scene. (Anita Nolan’s blog post “Ways to End a Scene.” lists several options for scene endings.) One closing that worked particularly well in the group was the decision to introduce a new character, which starts a new conflict, which seemed like a good way to compel the reader to go on to the next chapter.
By the end of the session, we had stories with good hooks, conflict, dialogue, and compelling scene enders.
In the second session, we focused on two pieces of advice that might seem contradictory:
- Writers are observers
- Don’t let reality get in the way of a good poem—or, as is often falsely attributed to Mark Twain, “Never let truth get in the way of a good story.”
So, what does that mean? Writers take from real life, what we observe through our five senses, then we develop it into something else. We let that spark take hold, embellish it with our own meanings, feelings, attitudes, then build it into something beyond the mundane. Writers, like other artists, observe the world around us, but, like other types of artists, we don’t need to be confined to the reality that inspires us.
Writers can be inspired by other artists. Sometimes it is by fellow writers, but we can be moved or excited by exploring other types of art.
Our local library has some permanent works, professional photographs at the end of each book shelf, local art displays, as well as a featured professional artist. (This month, a painter.) In the second session, we used the art exhibits to choose an image for inspiration. We talked about using sensory imagery and asking questions to spark our imagination.
I asked my fellow writers to spend just a handful of minutes finding an inspirational work of art out in the library; they were to study their chosen piece, jot down notes, and come back and write.
After they wrote for about five minutes, the discussion advanced to using literary allusion. The young writers are very familiar with other types of figurative language, but I wanted to give them practice with using allusion as a literary device.
“What does it remind me of?”–I asked the writing group to make a connection between their own work and something the reader would understand—a connection that was either literary, biblical, cultural, etc. references to books, movies, paintings, famous or historical figures. The only caveat was that the allusions had to be immediately recognizable to readers.
We read a couple of poems that use allusion, and discussed pop culture as allusion by reading John Ashbery’s Farm Implements and Rutabaga in a Landscape. In this sestina, Ashbery makes elevated references to Popeye and characters from the comic strip.
The work the group produced made reference to allusions from The Bhagavad Gita, the movie The Titanic, and William Carlos Williams’ “So Much Depends on a Red Wheelbarrow.”
I recognize that both of these sessions focused on visual inspiration. What do you use or suggest we use next time for inspiration? What are some other ways to avoid the blank screen?