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How to Find Writing Inspiration When You Run Out of Ideas

In ancient Rome and ancient Greece, if a writer or artist couldn't tap into the inspiration needed to complete an artistic project, it wasn't their fault. It was a commonly held belief that creativity came from a spiritual entity outside of the artist, known by the Romans as a "Genius" and by the Greeks as a "Daemon." If inspiration wasn't present, the writer would simply wait until the divine chose to visit once more.

In modern-day thought, this concept has changed, leaving the creative with full responsibility to be inspired and create. It's an extraordinary burden, especially if your livelihood depends on it, but telling your editor or client, "Sorry, my daemon didn't visit today, so I can't meet the deadline" doesn't work.

So how do you find inspiration when you run out of ideas or feel writer's block weighing heavily? Here are a few ideas.

Finding consistent creative inspiration can be an extraordinary burden, especially if your livelihood depends on it.
Finding consistent creative inspiration can be an extraordinary burden, especially if your livelihood depends on it. Photo by Jhonis Martins from Pexels.

Watch TV

Normally, you'd think that television is the bane of a writer's existence. However, if it's inspiration you want, there are multiple shows available that provide a solid foundation for character building, storytelling, and setting the right tone. This article about shows for writers to binge watch on Netflix offers a list of some good ones to get you started.

Go on a pilgrimage

Living in the South, I am within a day's drive from famous literary meccas like William Faulkner's Rowan Oak and Flannery O'Connor's childhood home. These locations are full of details that would inspire any writer, such as the outline to A Fable in Faulkner's own handwriting on the walls of his home. You'll also see the settings that inspired your favorite writers and learn a little more about who they were as people going about their daily lives.

Write about writing

Writing is a process and like any other process, you need to contemplate the steps to master it. The best way to pull off this sort of contemplation is through—you guessed it—writing. Take a moment to write about why you enjoy writing in the first place. What is it about the act of writing that is cathartic for you? Is it something you really need an audience for or are you happy just exploring it on your own? How has writing changed your life and how do you imagine it will continue to do so? Exploring these questions will help you find the inspiration you have lost.

Use stream of consciousness

William Faulkner, Marcel Proust, Jack Kerouac and Virginia Woolf all understood the power of stream of consciousness writing. You can harness that power to find inspiration when it's lurking out of reach. Stream of consciousness involves immediately writing what comes into your mind, without attention given to grammar, punctuation, or even logic. Often, this kind of writing is full of sensory detail that isn't present when we apply rules, so experimenting with it is a great way to get creativity flowing. Also, the lack of attention given to editing allows for you to put words on a page in their purest form.

Ask questions to total strangers

Everyone has a story to tell. And some are desperately waiting to tell it, if only they could find a willing listener. That's why talking with a total stranger is underrated, especially if you're a writer looking for inspiration. However, those with a knack for writing also tend toward social anxiety, so it isn't easy for everyone to walk up to a stranger and start a conversation.

That's where social media and the Internet can help. Posing questions that are open to a wide audience, on websites such as Quora, will yield a lot of interesting responses. And many people feel safe enough behind a computer screen where they are not afraid to get personal, or share intimate details about their past experiences, which makes the process even more inspiring.

Listen to music

Music is one of the easiest ways to tap into the subconscious. Genres ranging from electronica and ambient to jazz and classical offer a soundscape that is often without words, allowing you to close your eyes and let the words find you. Listening to music can help you visualize scenes and characters from a place of pure creativity, while relaxing your mind enough to return eventually to your typewriter or laptop with the inspiration you need.

Sometimes, playing music while writing can help you set the right tone for your scenes. If you can't do both, try putting on headphones and closing your eyes to see which words the music evokes.

Listening to music can help you visualize scenes and characters from a place of pure creativity.
Listening to music can help you visualize scenes and characters from a place of pure creativity. Photo by Juja Han on Unsplash.

Tidy up

There is scientific proof that clutter dampens the brain's ability to focus. In fact, visual clutter suppresses the brain's responsiveness and increases anxiety. Simply put—the brain becomes overloaded with visual stimuli and tries to sort through it all, leaving little capacity remaining for things like writing. Taking the time to tidy up your office or writing space not only clears your mind in the process—it also allows your focus to be sharper when you eventually do sit back down to write.

Observe people

You learn a lot by watching others, especially if you're a writer. Observing their movements and their idiosyncrasies, along with the way they interact with others around them, teaches you more about character building than any book ever could.

You don't have to be creepy about it, either. Simply find a spot where people pass by often and watch. Keep a notebook handy to jot down any interesting ideas or details you notice. While the point of this kind of observation is to clear your mind and find inspiration when it's elusive, it could become fodder for characters you intend to create and stories you've yet to write.

Listen to podcasts by and about creatives

Sometimes, all you need is practical advice from others who have traveled the same path you're traveling. Podcasts are an excellent way to find inspiration, whether they're on the topic of writing or simply interviews with other authors and creatives. Here are five great TedTalks to inspire your writing and there are hundreds more available through sites like TED, which offers listeners a customizable search across topics, languages, and podcast duration.

One of the great things about listening to a podcast is you can multitask while doing it, which is especially helpful for writers who have a 9 to 5 job or a busy family life. Podcasts can be downloaded to your smartphone and played on your morning commute to work, and you can listen to one while cleaning house or folding the laundry. Filling your mind with inspirational discussions and talks means less room for self-doubt and criticism, which can be detrimental to a writer's creative endeavors.

Go to nature

Transcendentalist essayist Henry David Thoreau once wrote, I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. This quote summarizes Thoreau's approach to inspiration in that he understood how being alone in nature had a profound impact on his creative pursuits.

You don't have to be a Transcendentalist to benefit from this practice. Stepping outside of your writing space for a while, walking, and breathing in the fresh air are all good for your body, as well as your mind. Often, a simple change of environment is all that's needed to get creativity flowing. When the environment is quiet and peaceful, you can use it as a meditative moment to clear your mind of all the clutter and focus in on what's important—your writing.

Read a book

Stephen King once wrote, If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. For writers, reading allows you to internalize multiple things that will help you in your own creative pursuits, such as what publishers and audiences are looking for, how great stories are crafted, and how to make dialogue flow naturally on the page. Reading expands your vocabulary and provides cues for what works and what doesn't, while indirectly teaching you about everything from character building and narrative technique to the pace and tone that works best in a particular genre.

If your intent is to publish your work, it is especially important that you read other authors within that genre to get a feel for what's out there and what your intended readership will expect. Additionally, when soliciting your manuscript to agents and publishers, you'll need to include information about other books on the market that would be similar to yours in a competitive analysis. In this analysis, you're expected to state what will set your book apart from the others, and you can't do this unless you're well-read in the genre.

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