Breathing Fire--Finding the Root of Inspiration

Katherine Longshore 13 Tuesday, September 24, 2013

It’s no secret that I love words.  Which is why it’s probably no surprise that as soon as I saw it, I picked up THE ETYMOLOGICON by Mark Forsyth.  Its subtitle is A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language.  Forsyth delves deep into the troubled pools of common linguistics and breaks words down into their most basic components to show how our language was created—how it evolved, like a living thing.  And he does it all with grace and good humor and a healthy dose of sarcasm.  What’s not to love?

So when I started thinking about this week’s blog theme, I decided to go back to the origin of the word inspiration.  According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (a must-go-to site for all writers of historical fiction hoping to avoid anachronism), the definition of inspiration from the early 14th century is "immediate influence of God or a god," especially that under which the holy books were written.  It traces its roots back to an Old French word meaning “to breathe in” and in turn from a Late Latin word meaning “to inflame”.

So to be inspired is to be filled with breath, with fire, with the very influence of the gods (or Muses, as the case may be).  Your mind, your heart—your entire being—alight.

Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?

Damn straight, it’s exciting.  And you all know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t you?  Those days that the words flow like magic, the characters speaking through you, the ideas purely and truly represented when writing—the days you trap the tiger, as Robin said in her post last week.

But you also know that it doesn’t always work that way.  (And please don’t tell me that it does, or I’ll be forced not to like you anymore.)  There are days when the words are like barbed spines plucked from your skin, each one painful to extract and not very pretty when it comes out.  There are days ideas are like insects trapped in amber—nearly impossible to access and if you break into them by force, they are ruined, torn apart.  These are the days that the flame goes out—the breath of inspiration stolen from you.

So what do you do?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I recently had a bit of a setback (the form this took isn’t relevant here, just know that it was a creative one).  It pushed me right back to the drawing board, only I felt there was nothing left to draw.  I was empty.  A one-trick pony desperately searching for another trick because the old one had been taken away.

I was completely and utterly uninspired.  It was different from writer’s block, which I’ve encountered and managed to survive.  It was…idea block. 

I asked for help from my writing friends.  I received many wonderful responses—offers of support and prompts of historical eras and figures that would make interesting reading.  But I was like a spoiled child, flopping around on the floor and whining, “No, no, no.  I can’t do that.  That’s too hard.  That’s already been done.”  It certainly wasn’t that the ideas were bad, my attitude was.  But it was more than that—none of these suggestions inspired me.  I felt like an ungrateful slob—asking for help and then turning it down.

But it made me realize—inspiration has to come from within.  That breath, that fire doesn’t come from the gods (or your friends or your agent or your editor or even from a writing prompt).  It comes from the creator.  The fire is ignited when all the right ingredients come together, but also when it’s given room to breathe.

I had to let go.  Of my one trick (writing historically accurate biographical fiction) and of the trick I wanted to learn (which may be beyond my capability).  Perhaps not forever--these are both things that I'd like to continue to pursue.  But in order to fan the flame of other possibilities, I first had to break down the wall that I’d erected against accepting new ideas.  I had to let air in so I could breathe.

I hope you've never had this trouble.  I hope you're one of those people whose ideas come at you like dive-bombing hummingbirds, bright and loud and insistent.  But if you do find yourself at a loss, I've discovered that these things help:

1.     Go for a walk.  They work wonders.
2.     Talk to a friend.  Even if they can’t fix it, at least getting those words and thoughts out can free up a little space inside your head.
3.     Listen to music.  Maybe even dance.
4.     Read or listen to the news.  James Scott Bell says that ideas and characters can be found in almost any newspaper.  And even if you don’t find an idea that can become a novel, the very act of getting outside yourself and into the world can be inspiring.  Asking the questions—why do people do that? What are they thinking? How can that happen?  What does it take to drive a person to be so noble/heroic/dastardly/despicable?  They all free up places in your mind and get you thinking—like a good, swift walk for the psyche.
5.     Read a good book.  Sometimes, I’m afraid to do this because I think I’ll feel utterly useless in the face of someone else’s prowess.  The reality is almost always the opposite—a unique story and wonderful words are like a wind that whips inspiration.
I'm doing a ropes course here--40 ft. off the ground
6.     Play.  Take a Frisbee to the park with your kids, go rock climbing, get out the cribbage board, sing in the shower, try something fun that challenges all your conceptions of yourself. 

7.     Sit.  The world today is full of noise, even in silence.  Social media is accessible anywhere and everywhere.  It’s so easy to eavesdrop, to join in, to get involved, to be subsumed.  All of these things can suck the air right out of your creativity.  Sitting and doing nothing can allow some oxygen back in to feed the flames.
8.     Listen.  To your own voice.  To your own thoughts.  To your own inspiration.

You don’t have to wait to be bereft of ideas to try these things either.  Every one of these tricks can help breathe inspiration into a page, a paragraph, a revision, a muddled middle or an ordinary ending.  It can help you answer the biggest question of all:  What happens next?

You can’t force inspiration—just like you can’t force a flame in a vacuum.  I discovered last week that once I started to breathe, little flickers of ideas came through.  And with them, the motivation to try out some new tricks.

How about you?  What do you do to find inspiration?


Great ideas, Katy--I especially like the one about playing. And My Little Ponies are great, but I've really been getting into the LEGO lately. Maybe I could build a fort for the MLPs?

Also, thanks for the Online Etymology Dictionary link! That'll definitely come in useful...all those "wc" (word choice) brackets in my WIP need to GO.

I was going to mention it to you last night, Beth! I figured that's what those notations were--I've used similar brackets myself. :)

Did you make a breakthrough? I can't wait to hear about your new ideas!!

Let's say I may be in the process of breaking through, Eve. :) And thank you (for your help and your encouragement!)

Katherine, it's as though you read my mind. I just left to go out for lunch and as I was driving I was thinking - why doesn't anything stick? These are good ideas, good plots? Why don't they work for me? Because I am not inspired. And in the beginning - as you said - it is essential. This is not about difficult writing or forging ahead during a troublesome scene. This is the promise or agreement you make with yourself - to be inspired. Thank you, thank you, Katherine. How often we writers think we're all alone or broken! Thank you!

Thank you so much for telling me this, Robin. We writers do--all too often--feel alone or broken, and being able to connect and empathize and walk through it together definitely helps. So thank you, too.

I think I need a copy of the Etymologicon! I hope one of those flickers starts burning bright, let me know if there's anything I can do to fan the flames :).

Perfect timing. I have been struggling with a new story idea and definitely have idea block. I only have two pieces of the puzzle and have been trying to find other pieces for weeks. Nice to know this happens to others. Thanks.

I have had this and it sucks! thank you for giving me some ideas on what to do when this problem happens. I see you went to a tree adventure course! I have done that and you know what, it worked out all my idea blockages. I had so many ideas after that day that we are going back in two weeks to Flagstaff to have some fun. I defiantly need it. Thank you for sharing!

It's a fabulous book, Kristen! And I'm sure I will be asking for your input to my inspiration soon!

I hope the pieces start to fit together soon, Darshana!

I had so much fun on that adventure course, Tawney! And have fun on your next adventure course--I can't wait to try it again, myself!

oh idea block! how I curse thee! feeling creatively tapped out is THE WORST.... and I love your bulletpoint list – kinetic action always helps me, from walking the dog or doing the elliptical at the gym. And I've never heard of that book before (please tell me I'm not the only one?) but I'll definitely check it out now, thanks :)

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