Friday, May 15, 2009

On Inspiration

I've chronicled how some of my characters and stories "show up" in my head fully formed. Several readers have found that interesting. 

Let's debunk a myth right now: For me, such "inspiration" does not drop from the sky out of nowhere, even if that's how it appears in the moment.

In every case, there's been a lot of work done beforehand. I've done weeks of research. I've come across kernels of ideas or facts that might work well in a story. I dwell on those for days, trying come up with ways to use them in a plot. I might run across a news story or read something in a book that sparks an idea. I think about types of story lines and characters. As best I can, I immerse myself in the location the book will take place to get to know its "personality."

All of this is effort, which is entirely in my head, is major part of my creative process at work. 

It helps me uncover dozens of puzzle pieces that then float around. I have to sort through the pieces: which ones belong in the book I'm going to write and which ones don't? I have to look at what's left (often I don't sort them perfectly and have to resort) and then figure out how they fit together into a cohesive picture.

There's a lot of thinking involved, a lot of turning off the car radio and letting my brain ponder as I drive. A lot of daydreaming while I'm making dinner or folding laundry. A lot of jotting down random notes that only I would understand the meaning of.

Then, and only then, while I'm in another one of those moments where I can ponder and still do some brainless activity (like drying my hair) do I have those magical moments where two or three of those puzzle pieces snap together in one quick moment, and I see the vision of what the full picture just might look like. 

One bit of irony is that the harder I try to chase the inspiration, the more it eludes me. I have to let it percolate mentally, reaching out with tendrils, coaxing it with whispers to come out of the corner and reveal itself.

Sometimes the process takes longer than others, and that's when I start to panic. What if there isn't a story hiding in the shadows this time? What if I can never coax this one out?

But that's usually the point where the idea, unbeknownst to me, is already maturing somewhere in my head. That's when the puzzle pieces are drawing near one another, getting ready to click together into a new character, a line of dialogue, or a specific scene.

I imagine some writers do have magical moments of inspiration that come out of nowhere, but mine always arrive as the reward for lots of ground work.

A section of Stephen King's On Writing describes writing as uncovering a fossil, uncovering what's already there. I can relate to that. The longer I think and work, the more of the dirt is brushed away. At some point, the bones of the story will be exposed for the first time--but not without all that dirt clearing first.

That's how I work, anyway. I'm sure there are as many ways as there are writers.

25 comments:

Mikki said...

Very interesting. Do you keep a notebook for each story that you've written, with all the notes and brainstorming and whatnot associated with that particular book? (did that even make sense?)

Kristina P. said...

I love learning about writer's processes.

Heidi Ashworth said...

I DO feel like things just drop out of the sky for me BUT it's true that I have done a ton of reading that relates to the kind of books I write--one can't underestimate the influence that has on one--intentionally or not.

Annette Lyon said...

Heidi--For me it does feel like it drops from the sky, but then I look back and realize that part of my brain was working on it for a long time before that aha moment hit.

I love hearing how it works for other writers.

Luisa Perkins said...

Yes, I love the fossil analogy. I chuckled as I read this post, since the anecdote of your inspiration while blow drying your hair has become legend in certain circles.

Cynthia said...

Fascinating! I am not a creative writer though I've done some grantwriting and technical type of boring stuff. It's really interesting to me to hear how the creative writers flesh out the ideas.

My husband's great-great Aunt would make an awesome character. She was one of the first women business owners in Utah (owned a milnery shop in Provo) in the late 1800's. Jane was a strong-willed determined woman. Had we gotten one more little girl, her middle name would have been Jane in the hopes that she'd develop some of those same character traits.

Do you use family history stories (either your own or ones you've heard) as a starting point?

Don said...

There are many times I've had to abandon the lawn mower to hurry into the house and write down the solution to a tricky plot point I've been banging my head against.

That inspiration usually does come during brainless activities. Maybe adding gasoline exhaust helps.

Kimberly said...

I've had such a variety of experiences even in my limited time. Once, it was picking a specific rock up off a beech that sparked the creation of a whole new world in my mind. Other times, it has been after careful and methodical planning and outlining, that characters, places, and plot points have suddenly fallen into place.

Fascinating post, Annette!

Becky said...

Isn't the human brain so amazing? I have had similar problem solving experiences happen for me in my work as well.

Annette Lyon said...

I have an old notebook where I keep thoughts and ideas. The ones I write down are rarely the ones I use, for some reason, but they are launching points.

Cynthia, the only family story that's inspired a book thus far is my parents' story (At the Water's Edge), although it's not based on them, just inspired by them.

There is one big family story I'd love to work into a novel at some point--it just hasn't gelled yet.

Don, I love the exhaust fumes bit. :)

LexiconLuvr said...

I love that you used the word "percolate." It's exactly the word I would have used to describe how I felt about my own experiences. =]

wonder woman said...

I love hearing more about your process.

There's a new song out now, I think it's by Pink. It's called "Please don't leave me." The chorus reminds me of Spires of Stone. She saying she doesn't know why she only acts obnoxious around him, and it's all just a contest -- the winner's the one who hits the hardest. Anyway.....makes me think of your book. Ü

debilyn said...

This is exactly why I will never consider myself a writer.

I'm not really sure what happens or how it happens...I just type and hope that I don't sound stupid ;)

Jan the crazy lady said...

I could really tell that you do a lot of ground work. It is amazing to me.

I also appreciate it.

Heatherlyn said...

I think it is amazing when writers can uncover or discover or imagine up entire plots and characters and worlds. Amazing.

wendy said...

I would imagine in many ways it would be alot like that ----sifting through the "dirt" finding and refining the character. It is an art form I guess.

Jordan McCollum said...

I would say that some of it is unearthing the fossil—and some of it, too, is going back and realizing, "Hey, this dino would look even better with . . . like . . . muscles."

And a month later, "Oh, and skin."

And a week later, "Brown skin."

And a few more days later, "With blue stripes."

LOL

Annette Lyon said...

Jordan, I love it! That's the perfect analogy!

One Cluttered Brain said...

I usually get my ideas from ideas in my head or if I don't like how a story ended--re write it, of course you need to change it so it doesn't look like you plagarized but you get my drift.

Asking myself What if the main character fell off a cliff instead of kissing the man she loves? Or something like that. I love writing. There is just something about it that frees my soul, Wonderful stuff ya know?

Thanks for sharing YOUR writing style! Cool.

Carolyn V. said...

It's funny. The piece I am working on right now started as a synopsis assignment for my creative writing college course. When I finished, I started the first chapter. I've spent countless hours plotting and figuring out where this story is going. But the best part is - everyone who has read it, loves it. I think that makes all the extra time spent prewriting all worth it! =)

in time out said...

nice post...my Word Verification is recess...I wish we still got it...

...I am posting SEVEN wordless wednesday, on SATURDAY!!!....play along...can you guess. starting at 9am....every hour...♥

Melanie J said...

Percolating is the perfect word for me, too. I've used that word many times when explaining something to my husband. There's just this little idea that brews and brews until it flows. But I kind of like that feeling, that something in the back of my brain that I know is going to BE something.

Shelle-BlokThoughts said...

I'm not much of a writer... but when I am trying to choreograph a dance it kinda happens like that... I have to listen over and over to the song... watch as much dance as I can...

and then it seems to come... so I kinda get it! :)

Jo said...

That is a great way to explain the process.

An Ordinary Mom said...

"percolate mentally" ... I love the image that gives me! Thanks for the glimpse into your creative processes. I find it fascinating.

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