Suspend Your Disbelief

Shop Talk |

Inspiration 2.011


Fractal, Image Credit: Flickr

One of my favorite elements of FWR’s author interviews has got to be reading about what inspires other writers. Some of us get lost in years of research, some just get out into the world and make friends on the bus, some can’t say enough about delving into nonfiction, science journals, trips to the ballet – you name it. Writing is a passion that feeds off other passions. You can definitely feel this as a reader.

Sometimes, sitting in front of blank document, I long for the days of the high school essay prompt. My English teacher senior year, Ms. Henry, had a knack for sparking ideas with her Delphic prompts. A dash of ambiguity and enough meat to really dig in your claws resulted in some great ideas. She would often read a fellow classmate’s paper out loud to the class, so I know it wasn’t just me that she inspired.

2011janfeb_webImagine my delight that Poets & Writers have taken up the idea of a few choice words providing a springboard for a session at the desk. You can now visit a page on P&W called “The Time Is Now” for a weekly dose of inspiration. Their first prompt goes live today, check it out, and let the muse lead. In another mind-reading feat, the entire Jan/Feb issue of Poets & Writers is devoted to Inspiration in its many forms.

Another avenue of inspiration I’ve found are the “Sermons” put out by The School of Life. I first heard about The School of Life when Alain de Botton, one of the co-founders, spoke about it in San Francisco at a City Arts & Lectures event last year. As the website logotaglinestates: “The School of Life is a new social enterprise offering good ideas for everyday living.” The mission is as expansive as that statement sounds, and the sermons are not your typical Sunday morning affair. The diverse set of speakers have covered topics that range from Punctuality to Kinky Sex, and lots of other things that pique my interest – Gluttony, Good Design, Productivity. I always find hearing someone’s careful thoughts on something like, oh, guilt, produce a fractal-like flowering of my own ideas.

During the long and interior evenings of winter, where do you turn for that generative spark?

Join the Discussion

  • Such a great (and needed) post. I discovered the new Poets & Writers feature this week, too, and signed up right away.

    I recently wrote an article about prompts & exercises–the links and books cited might be useful ( It’s already a bit out of date: Midge Raymond is now offering a writing exercise every week, and Lisa Romeo is about to start a new Winter Prompt Project (check her blog, linked in the article, for details).

  • Try (that’s what I get for omitting a space at the end of the link).

  • Lee Thomas

    Erika, thanks for sharing your piece – what a great resource. I particularly like what Stephanie Vanderslice says about working on her own prompts as her students do, and then continuing to hone those pieces later. I’m so happy she mentions that those exercises have led to published work.

    Early on, I had the (naïve) idea that work from a prompt was somehow less authentic or genuine. I now realize that the work is still one’s own, and that shunning a prompt is like believing that world-class athletes should just show up at an event without training, without eating right, without a coach – that raw talent alone will get you there. No everyone needs prompts or likes them, not every prompt will touch off that flurry of ideas, but I’ve read work that started out as “Fully describe a setting, devoid of any characters” that turned into an amazing, intricate short story that was fully character-driven.

  • Thanks, Lee. I agree: Prompt-prompted work is just as valuable as any other writing. You’re right that not everyone needs or likes prompts, and not every prompt will spark something lasting. But for me, too, the rewards have been substantial.

  • Always the easiest thing to name, but the hardest thing to understand. Love the idea of prompts, has always worked to dislodge my brain from the rut of an unfinished or incomplete story.

    Another good prompt I find it to subscribe to a flickr feed in your Google reader, either on a particular topic, or just on their “interesting” lists. A photo delivered every day can be a great way to kick start a new mood.

  • Lee Thomas

    Really like the idea of the visual prompt as another way to access a story, or the idea for a story. Reminds me of the We Are the Friction collection where illustrators created an image that a writer drew upon for a story, and then the reverse. I’m totally adding a Flickr feed to my reader … thanks Mark.

  • Nothing inspires like a deadline! I know that some writers say they need large swathes of time to work, slowly descending into the characters and the setting, but I find that when I have a lot of time on my hands the only thing that gets done are the dishes and the laundry…

    This is why I tell my writing students that when they’re trying to start a new project they should limit themselves to writing only for an hour. Or, better yet, twenty minutes. And even if they get on a roll, I tell them they must promise not to keep going once they hit that time line. That way they’ll have the interest and momentum to come back to the work the next day. Or even later that afternoon. Meanwhile, their subconscious will be working the next stage, the next page.

    And here’s the bottom line about limiting writing time: if you only have twenty minutes to write, you won’t spend twenty minutes making tea and clearing your desk and adjusting the window shade. You’ll actually write.

    Now, once you’re actually knee deep in a project, I’m all for immersion. As Alan Shapiro writes in his beautiful essay “Why Write?”, there’s nothing more wonderful than achieving the zen-like state of “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration” that we experience through sustained writing.

    But insofar as training yourself to spark new ideas, I find that few things are better catalysts than timetables and deadlines.

    Here’s the Shapiro essay. I highly recommend it. The piece was originally published in the Cincinnati Review and collected in Best American Essays 2006, but with the author’s permission it’s also been posted on Dustin Brookshire’s blog, I was Born Doing Reference Work in Hell.

Literary Partners