Two words you dread hearing: writer’s block. Two words that have become a very familiar acquaintance, one that you simply can’t get rid of for good. I’ll start with the good news—you’re not alone! We’ve all been there, and I have actually been there for the entire past year! Now for the bad news: inspiration, your hero against writer’s block, is not to be trusted. Inspiration is fleeting and impermanent, and if we only waited until we had the inspiration and/or motivation to get started or to write something down, we would never get anything done.
One way that you can work around this is to force yourself to write anyway. Set daily word counts and type random words until you reach it. What you write might not be good, but at least you’re doing something at all. This used to be my go-to strategy, and if you use it moderately, it might still work for you, but over the past year I’ve had to learn some hard lessons about burnout (both creatively and non-creatively). I’ve realized that human energy levels are like a pendulum swing—the harder you try to work and get more things done, better and faster, the harder and longer you’ll burn out. You can go up to your personal highest high, but you can’t avoid that lowest low.
I let my love and passion for writing define my entire identity for a while. I was so used to not being good at anything and I had thought I was worthless for so long that when I realized I wasn’t bad at writing, I let my ability to write define my worth. I tried to churn out more and more stories, hoping to win more and more awards, hoping to get published in more and more journals. I even rushed the writing of my novel, the project that had allowed me to rediscover my love for writing, for the sake of being able to brag that I had written a book. The pressures of applying to college certainly didn’t help, as I felt I had to be an extraordinary writer to even have a chance of acceptance. But as this mentality and these habits continued, my writing became worse and worse. I was doing it for the sake of doing, and I wasn’t putting my heart and soul into the stories I was crafting anymore. I had lost sight of the passion I once had, and writing, a hobby I once used as escapism from the real world, had started to feel like work.
So it seems that relying on inspiration isn’t enough, and going the discipline route might backfire as well. For the arts, which truly require so much passion and emotion, walking the fine line between work and play is a delicate balance. But I have good news: it is completely possible to be in that balanced zone. We’re approaching the issue from the wrong angle. As Professor Simon Sutton-Smith said, “The opposite of play is not work; it is depression.” Work doesn’t have to be serious and soul-sucking. In an ideal world and ideal life, work can be something we enjoy, too. While ultimately discipline and work must carry inspiration to allow something to happen, the inspiration is where we begin, and just because it’s not reliable doesn’t mean it’s not vital. Our job is to pay attention to inspiration, to not let it slip from our fingers, and then to allow it space to bloom into creation, into existence.
The problem with allowing something to feel like work is that most of the time we have associated work with negative feelings and negative things, therefore creating an aversion towards work. It becomes something we have to do, rather than something we get to do. But the issue is not inherently work, it’s forcing ourselves to do things we don’t want to do. Writing is a fun thing, but when we make it so that we must write even if we’re not in the mood to do so, then it becomes burdensome. It starts to feel like a responsibility, and one that we don’t enjoy.
My advice is to never allow writing to become something you must do. Ride off the highs of inspiration when you do have it. Allow yourself the time to create as much as you can if you’re feeling especially excited to do so. But if you don’t feel like writing, try doing something low-stakes like scribbling something to a prompt you found online just to get your creative juices flowing. It’s important to let go of our expectations for perfection, because perfection doesn’t exist. The more we strive towards it in our creative work, less heart will go into what we create, and our creations will most likely turn out worse which helps to repeat the cycle of self-loathing. However, even if a low-stakes, no-expectations writing session doesn’t feel fun, I suggest taking a break. Don’t feel guilty about doing so. We all need breaks, and having a healthy relationship with creativity means we don’t force ourselves to go over our limits. If you really don’t feel like it, just don’t do it, and that helps us keep our writing space a fun, sacred space where negativity cannot reach.
What’s the limit between breaks and just not writing at all, then? A break is however long you need to recharge your brain and creative energy, whether that be a couple of days to a week or even a couple of months. But if you’re starting to feel stuck, as if that block might never end, then it’s time for some (gentle) discipline and remedying: start to engage in activities that replenish your creative juices and actively seek out inspiration. You can do this anytime, of course, but it’s still important to take time off to do nothing at all sometimes. We’re not wired to be constantly doing.
Inspiration might be fleeting, but it is also everywhere. As artists, as creators, we are always seeking out inspiration, and it can be hard to find when our minds are full and our hearts are heavy. Sometimes, we just need to open our eyes to the world around us and listen. I’ve created a list of some sources of inspiration you can turn to below, but just know that inspiration is in everything, just waiting to be found once you open yourself to receiving.
1: No stakes
It sounds simple, but sometimes having a blank page where anything can happen can be really conducive to creativity. If you’re feeling stuck due to expectations and pressure, getting rid of those factors can free up so much room to create what you’ve secretly been dying to create on the inside for months. Remember that at any time in your writing career, no one has to read what you write. You can write things just for you, too. There are absolutely no stakes here. See what you’re already itching to create just under the surface. As they say, “dance like nobody’s watching,” and this can be applied to writing as well. Write like nobody will read it. Because nobody will, unless you let them in, but you don’t have to!
2: Found text
An activity I always do with my students is to create a “found text” journal over the duration of the course, which means that at least once a week they’ll jot down any kind of text that stands out to them, for any reason at all. This text can be written down in books or articles, or it can be spoken, such as overheard dialogue or song lyrics. It can even be artistic representations of text such as graffiti. As for me, I have a note in my notes app where I jot down the text that stands out to me. This text can then be incorporated into a story, or it can simply serve as inspiration for a concept, a plot, the vibes/atmosphere, etc.
Music is a huge source of inspiration for me personally. I create playlists for all of the major works that I’m writing, such as my novel, or longer short stories. Having a dedicated playlist (or soundtrack, if you will) really gets me into the headspace to create and can help me create the vibes that I’m going for. Listening to sad music so that you become sad enough to write the tragic scenes, anyone? Another way music can be a source of inspiration can be through song lyrics or through music videos/album concepts. Last year, I suddenly thought of an idea for a whole novella based off of the concept of the album “I Burn” by (G)I-DLE, in particular the flower burning. The story was very dark, set in a fantasy kingdom where there was a villain known as “The Florist.” I also was very inspired by certain artistic music videos I’ve seen with great storylines, which helped me think of storylines of my own. See where your imagination goes when you’re consuming great music!
4: People watching
Have you ever looked at a stranger out on the street and tried to “figure out” what kind of person they were, what they did for a living, what their story was? You’re not alone. This can be an entertaining activity when you’re bored in line, but it can also be a great way to find inspiration for a story. You can do traditional people watching in a public space, just noting certain people that have a vibe you’re drawn to and letting them serve as inspiration for characters in a story. This has a lot of freedom, as you can really imagine anything based on just looking at someone you know nothing about. But if you’d like to have some more guidelines, you can also do some online people observing, looking through comments on social media, reviews on Yelp or Google, or even taking a look at established internet creators and creating personas inspired by those snippets of people you can see on the internet.
Nature was my first source of inspiration as a child. I loved to play pretend in my backyard, imagining it as a fantasy world of its own. Step outside and notice how beautiful our world is. Sometimes we forget how big the world is when we’re cooped indoors doing our sedentary human activities for so long. Simply enjoy this environment, and notice how the change in scenery affects your creative juices—it can really be like stepping into a whole new world, and it can be a great way to help you create worlds of your own.
6: Photos of almost anything (yay Pinterest)
Create a moodboard of anything that encapsulates the vibe you’re looking for. You might not even know what that is yet, but that’s okay. Just start out with a single idea, a single word, or what you like, and then see where that takes you. Pinterest can be really helpful because it’s super easy to create multiple boards there (and see similar ideas based off of what you’re already liking). You can use the photos to help you create a certain vibe, even using specific ones to help you with character building, writing about landscape/scenery, etc.
7: Reading/consuming stories
This one is a no-brainer. Consuming stories in any format (books, movies, shows, etc.) can open you up to so many new perspectives and show you some interesting things, which can serve as great inspiration for your writing! Reading in particular is always helpful for writing, since by consuming in that written format you can notice particular techniques and stylistic techniques that can help you sharpen your craft. The more you read, the better you’ll write, in terms of skill, but it’ll also give you many ideas! Just be sure not to plagiarize.
Ekphrasis is known as the written description of a work of art. Looking at art can certainly inspire you to create certain vibes or give you ideas off of certain concepts, but you can also try your hand at writing ekphrastic stories or poetry, by creating your writing directly from a piece of art. If you’re truly stuck, starting from a place of description can be useful.
9: Your life/experiences
Of course, you can write inspired by things you’ve seen or gone through, as well! Actually having lived through something means that you can describe experiences in more detail and more accurately in your writing. The familiar is always an easy place to start. If you had a particularly painful experience with getting your wisdom teeth removed, maybe you want to write a story about that. Or maybe you want to write a love story inspired by your first love. Who knows? You’re the writer, and the possibilities are endless!
10: Things you’re learning about
If you find the subjects you’re taking in school deeply fascinating or even just find a couple of facts you learned interesting, you can find some new ideas and new concepts for stories. Whether you’re in school or not, I also encourage you to spend some time outside of school/work to learn something that genuinely interests you. This can be a great source of ideas! I had several ideas inspired by things I’ve learned in history class, and my friend had written a story inspired by the cult of domesticity.
These are only ten suggestions, but inspiration can really be found anywhere. The key is to switch things up and to search in places you don’t expect, rather than hoping to find something great in the same old things you’ve been trying before. Just be open to new ideas at any moment—they’re going to come at some inconvenient times for you, but if you don’t take note, they might fly out of your grasp forever.