ABC’s of Writing (for Beginners): I for Inspiration

Posted by on Sep 24, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart . . . –Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

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Inspiration: The process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative; the drawing in of breath; inhalation; from the Middle English for ‘divine guidance.’

One of the first pieces of advice we often receive as students of writing is not to wait around for inspiration; not to expect that a muse will sing down especially-tailored verses to us from Mount Parnassus; that writers write—that being a writer means putting ass in chair, and pen to paper or fingers to keys. Words on the page. Writing is work. A calling, maybe; a deep desire, a critical element of our survival, even—yes, yes, and yes, but also, work.

            How, though, do we do this work?

So many of us become writers because we feel inspired. Inspiration, in fact, is what many of us have in bulk as we begin. There’s a burning in our fingertips, on the tips of our tongues, in our throats, in our souls; the need, the want, the compulsion to express our inner being into the outer realm. For many of us, we’ve had this since childhood, since we first picked up a pen or book; when we held that book in our hands and thought, I want to make something like this, and then set out to do so in our Hello Kitty notebooks, or some other place. So when we’re told to all but forget about inspiration, to view the act of writing as not some mysterious, divine rite but, rather, serious, hard work (which it is), we might feel like we’ve been banished to a rowboat that’s drifted out to sea, the waters too wide, the current too rough for our oars.

As a teacher of writing, I see this drift in many of my students who know they want to write, who want to be “writers,” but feel unworthy, or phony, or hopeless, because they don’t know what to write about. They don’t know how to sit at the desk and make those words appear on the page no matter what—no matter what mood they’re in, or whether or not their muse is on a smoke break. So over time, I’ve tried to help demystify the process, to come up with some concrete methods for helping students utilize inspiration as one of their greatest assets, while setting that inspiration to work.

One of the first steps we take is looking at writers’ sources of material. A go-to source for all of us, arguably, but most especially beginning writers is emotion. The trouble with this arises when we’re not feeling much of anything, and don’t have the luxury of waiting around for the next wave of powerful emotion.

Another go-to is the imagination. Many of us begin writing because we grow up reading fantastical stories set in rich, extraordinary landscapes, and we feel the urge to create our own. Some of us can churn these out at will, but for many of us, it’s a struggle to maintain the flow of fresh ideas.

Luckily, there are innumerable sources of material beyond the realm of our immediate emotions and our own imaginations. And while we don’t ever really need (or want) to leave emotion and imagination behind—indeed, they can lead us deeper into any subject, in any genre—it is often useful to seek beyond them for material, especially when we’re stuck.


With my classes, I like to begin by listing some of the most general, encompassing sources: emotion and imagination, of course, but also:

  1. Pay attention to your mind, to the ideas and topics it tends to dwell on. Choose a subject as broad as love or as specific as Labrador puppies, and write about what you think of it.
  2. Take note of the images, trends, details, and peculiarities you’ve witnessed. Learn to notice and value these, and pursue them through your writing. Go to a particular place and be a witness—record what you see, feel, hear, smell, touch, taste, and intuit.
  3. Explore the terrain of what you know without knowing; the truth you’ve been able to glean through a somewhat mystical combination of thought, observation, memory, emotion, and other ways of coming to learn about the world.
  4. Write about the images or moments from your past that are lodged in your mind. Trace them as you remember them through nonfiction or poetry, or take pieces and transform them into something new through fiction.
  5. This is closely related to memory, in the sense that our own past experiences can serve as potent material for writing. But it also includes writing about something we’re experiencing in the relative present, such as food, travel, a new living situation, or adventure.
  6. Great writing is often rooted in a question—something as specific as, “What is the current presidential administration doing to combat climate change?”, or something as general as, “Can humans ever truly be free?” Pay attention to your most pressing questions, and let them fuel your writing.
  7. Politics/current events. Issues in the news can spark ideas for all kinds of writing—both direct, opinion-based responses as well as fictional adaptations.
  8. This includes news outlets, of course, but also music, art, photographs, and any other forms of media that you are interested in enough to write from.

There are too many more to list—people and places are among my two favorites—but from here, they continue to overlap. Most great writing incorporates many of these sources. But often, I suspect, they are most notably prompted by one—by a single thought or observation; by a particular memory or question. Paying attention to and cultivating all these types of sources on a regular basis may open a realm of opportunity so wide and far-reaching that, soon, you’ll find there is so much work to be done, enough for seven lifetimes. You’ll have no choice but to sit at your desk and do it.

And hopefully, inspiration will be the breath giving life to that work.


Ioanna Opidee teaches writing and literature at Fairfield University, where she earned an MFA in Creative Writing. Read more from Ioanna here.  ABC’s of Writing 

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