Whether you’re wondering what happens next in your story, want to write your first novel, or are about to start on the next instalment of your long-running series, there are always times when you’ll need inspiration. And it is often surprisingly close by.
‘Be observant,’ said the dramatist, Lajos Egri, ‘and you will be forced to admit that the world is an inexhaustible pastry shop and you are permitted to choose from the delicacies the tastiest bits for yourself.’
It’s that easy.
Except it’s not.
It’s difficult to suddenly ‘be observant.’ You don’t have time to sit around looking at things. You have to pick up the kids, get to the supermarket, make dinner, finish off that last game of solitaire. And you have to write!
Hemingway noted that it was difficult to be observant, but he also recognized its importance for writers. Being observant, he said in his 1935 Esquire article, Monologue to the Maestro, takes practice. ‘You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice.’
You don’t have to memorize every object in a room. There are simpler ways to get inspiration for your writing from observing the world around you. It can start with your morning shower.
Try to use all five senses next time you take a shower. Notice how the water falls, how it splashes and goes off at different angles. How would you describe the soap smell? Does the warm water taste different from a cold glassful? Does the water feel warmer on your face than on your back or legs? And listen to the sound of the spray and how being in the shower can distort other sounds?
As your characters go about their everyday routines, try to pick similar moments in your day to gather details you can use in your writing.
Eating is another good opportunity to practice these kinds of observational skills. How do you hold your cutlery? How do you cut the food? Do you pile it all on the back of the fork or scoop it up? Stop just before you take a bite. Look closely at the texture, the shape and colors. Notice any aromas. Then, when you put that morsel in your mouth, take a moment to taste it before you bite. When you do bite, does it make a noise? Does it crunch? Do your teeth clack together? Does the food taste different when you start to chew? What kind of flavors are released?
After a while, you can start to make notes of your observations. Wherever you are, somewhere new or somewhere familiar, take time to look around and enjoy what author David Mitchell called ‘free gifts’ in a recent interview with the LA Times.
‘When I go to a place I get a number of free gifts … I’ll get five decent sentences … about the place; they’re textual photographs. If you get these free gifts, use them in the text, use them in the prose, use them in descriptions. Put them in and they’re lovely little things to find on the forest footpath of the story, of the book.’
If you do that, you too could become wonderfully eloquent when giving a simple piece of advice.
You don’t even have to go somewhere new to get your five sentences. Try to write a few lines about the room you’re in right now. Look around, in all the corners, under the furniture, to see if you can find something you’ve never noticed before. Or find new ways to describe how the seat feels under you.
It’s not only the external world that can provide inspiration. There is often a whole conversation going in inside your mind. It can be worth taking a moment to stop and listen in.
This is especially useful if you’re writing from a first person point of view.
Try to observe how thoughts arise in your mind. What are your thoughts like? Do you think in words? Do they come in complete sentences? Maybe you think in images. How could you translate them to the page?
Don’t try to change your thoughts. Your thoughts are not good or bad, they’re just thoughts. Sit there and listen. That too takes practice.
Look for moments of conflict in your own thoughts too. When you consider having another coffee, for example. Or should you write one more page first? Try to listen to that to and fro as your mind tries to rationalize the best choice:
‘I’ll get a coffee first, that’ll give me the boost I need to write this next page.’
‘Yeah, but if I write the page first, the coffee could be a nice reward.’
Try to observe this whole thought process and see if you can introduce that into your writing to make your characters’ internal conversation and inner struggles seem more realistic.
Sometimes, when you’re lacking inspiration, it only takes a sentence or two to give you that spark, to set you off again. And those couple of sentences can be right in front of you now. Just take a look.
A version of this article was first published on 12 March 2019 as part of Jim’s regular column on WriterUnboxed.