There’s a wonderful movie called I’m Your Man and it’s a documentary and a recording of a star studded tribute concert to Leonard Cohen. It’s got some incredible performances. But it’s a movie I come back to when I want some encouragement or inspiration for writing.
Having spent all of April in a frenzy of writing a lot, or nothing at all, and putting a lot of pressure on myself either way, I’m in day 2 of relaxation – stepping back and examining what I’m doing a little bit, and trying my best to be kind to myself. So, I’m watching the movie.
Here’s my favourite quote from it, and maybe my favourite quote about writing ever:
You don’t have all the time in the world, I say to myself, you know how long it takes you to get something done. So you gotta run through at least ten versions of this thing. So you have to write down what you’re going to abandon, see how it works in the whole thing and then throw it away. And then throw it away. ~ Leonard Cohen
I love this for a few reasons, but the first one is that it doesn’t play with the idea of the perfect first draft, or even that writing is easy. It acknowledges that it is work, and you have to write the garbage in order to throw it out. This quote tells me to not judge, to just write, and when it’s done, then look at it. Then chuck out what doesn’t work and then to write it again. Obviously this is somewhat easier in song form than it is with an 80k word novel manuscript, but the idea is the same.
If it is your destiny to be this labourer called a writer, you know that you’ve go to go to work every day, but you also know that you’re not gonna get it every day. ~ Leonard Cohen
There’s another good one – this idea that you have to work at it consistently, that you can’t expect it to be easy or fun all the time.
Some people make doors, carpenters. Some people cut hedges, some people are plumbers or doctors and nurses. Leonard Cohen is a songwriter, he goes to work at that. You don’t get a sense from him like ‘oh I woke up one morning and this beautiful song, there it was, freshly painted. With him, he goes ‘no, no… I hate to wait a lot time for that one’. ~ Bono
Writing, and especially, getting to something good in your writing, takes time. Time and work.
I have to keep reminding myself of these things, because I’m sometimes seized with a horrible impatience to get everything Done and Out There, but that’s not necessarily how it works.
Balance these ideas with the Agile idea of the Minimum Viable Product, or getting something out there which is Good Enough, is another mind bender. Nothing can ever be perfect, so I know I can’t keep reworking things forever. I can throw away parts ten times and twenty times, but at some point I have to say “good enough” and put it out into the world.
If you get stuck in endless rewrites, edit, perfection, then you are giving yourself the excuse to never show it to anyone, and therefore neither succeeding or failing. Perfect isn’t a thing, but good enough is. It’s knowing your definition of good enough that’s the real trick. I’m trying to learn it at the moment.
So yes, watching this movie is an education and an inspiration, and it has some brilliant music in it it too. I’m interested to hear any thoughts you have on inspiration, letting go, working at something and knowing when to let it go.
I’ve had a long day at work. I come home to find that my roommate has trashed the living room. I am no longer surprised by her antics, so I have a drink and from the safety of the kitchen attempt to explain that ideally, we should be able to see most of the floor, most of the time.
We go from discussing inhospitable situations (say, this one) in the real world to inhospitable situations in fictional worlds. I admit, I’ve always been fascinated by people who make homes in strange places. I actually think that’s one of the reasons I like science fiction. Hell yes, I want a house on Mars.
Anyway, we hit upon building homes in corpses and, recognizing the futility reaching the couch anytime soon, I excuse myself, claiming that I am going to write a story about someone living in a dragon skull, because reasons. I am actually kidding. However, what ensues is several hours of watching people on YouTube attempt to make cobb floors, then scribbling something resembling an outline.
Also new roommates, though that’s another story.
Inspiration comes when it comes. It’s not the biggest part of writing— that would be getting the words down —but nobody would write if we as humans didn’t have moments of inspiration and a drive to share them. Besides, telling others about the people we imagine has helped us shape the world, spread joy, make strangers cringe.
Our inspirations don’t have to be about big things. If a big thing that’s happening over much of the world inspires you, then by all means, write your story about it. Enjoy it. Put your heart into it. But! You don’t have to be inspired by big things. You can be inspired by ants if that’s what works for you. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson was supposed to have been sparked by the author pushing a baby carriage up a hill in summer.
When you are cooking, when you are driving, when you are raking leaves— your mind can spark at any time. Images, conversations, profound concepts which deserve whole novels: there’s always something there. It might be the seeds of one of the most commented upon stories your favorite venue has ever published.
Please keep your eyes on that road if you’re driving, though. The rest of us writers would very much like you to make more stories!
I have been up much too late reading creepypasta, as one does. Once I pull myself away from the screen to stretch, I am startled by streak of white at the bottom of my window. It’s snowed and of course I didn’t even realize.
I am a bit afraid of snow, especially large amounts of snow that obscure the landscape. Featureless, white fields are some spooky stuff. Like an adult, I climb into bed and pull the covers over my head so I don’t have to see or think about this particular snow.
Drifting off to sleep, I imagine an alien wolf stalking down the side of a mountain. I can hear her belief that this place is hers. I hear her hunger.
I reach out from under the covers to grab my notebook, followed by a flashlight.
Not everyone can write things that they’re afraid of, but maybe you are that person who can and who grows from doing it, or at least trying. Then again, maybe you write horror, you do this every day and you’re having a chuckle at my expense right now.
If you can face your fears with words, that’s a great source of story ideas, not just of plots you formulate deliberately, but of things which may or may not literally creep up on you at night.
You should never worry about telling your readers what you’re afraid of. They’re afraid of things too, just maybe different things than you. For instance, most of your readers will never have dreaded their inbox pinging upon the arrival of a response from your dream market. This does not, however, mean that you can’t share your terror with them.
It’s raining. I am sitting at my desk listening to a cassette tape of darkwave music a friend gave me. It’s a lot different than the kind of music I prefer, but I live in a small town with a DJ who plays unusual 80’s music after midnight and I think I could get to enjoy this. I have only been writing for a few years, but I know that I could turn out an amazing story to the one song. Now, if only I could find the words.
They aren’t there, so I wait.
Twenty years pass.
I sell my first short story.
I find out that one of my favorite semipro venues is taking submissions for the next month.
I sit down at my computer. It’s raining again. I play the song. I remember thinking I could never be published.
But, a few weeks later I cross off my first dream venue. I’m not sure many people know I was trying to write a story that felt like listening to wailing synths. Or that I like darkwave.
A lot more stories are inspired by music than people let on. Saying you got an idea from a song is really not that unusual, though it has an ignominy to it which frankly, given our music-infused culture, seems a bit odd.
So what if we wrote bad song fic in high school? If we crank Phil Collins tracks on repeat when we think no one else is listening? Our shame when it comes to the connections between songs, between other forms of art, and our writing, is getting a bit silly at this point. The first InCryptid book by Seanan McGuire has a suggested list of dance tracks in the back, so said shame seems to be fading at least.
However, there’s no need to rush into any story. Sparks can and do die, but sometimes they linger on for hours, weeks, months, years, decades. It’s very OK to let an idea marinate. In fact, some ideas are much better after they mature.
If you’re concerned about forgetting your sparks, the best thing you can do is carry around some form of paper and pen. It’s low tech, cheap, and highly effective. Have an idea, write it down. I bet it will look lonesome on the page sooner or later, and soon you’ll have a good, old-fashioned writer notebook.
Then again, if you think you’d find a playlist more inspiring sometime next week, absolutely make a playlist.
I am sitting at the coffee table beading. I have come to a series of monotonous stitches. I’m not exactly bored, but I’m not exactly engaged. I can literally do what I’m doing right now and make eye-contact with another person. I just happen to be alone.
I am filled with the image of a woman in a 50’s day dress holding a bloody hand scythe. I know how she came to be in her situation, but I also have a need, intense and dreamy, to explain this to other people. That way, we can appreciate her together.
I am also pretty sure this is not what most people think of when they’re beading.
There’s a reason a lot of classical authors had dull jobs. There’s just something about zoning out doing one thing that makes the plotbunnies thrive. What if part of the reason we have so much amazing science fiction right now is because, once again, so many people get bored at work? Hmm, actually that’s a depressing thought…
However, it’s possible to get the inspiration benefits of a mindless job and create something amazing at the same time. Moreso than even carrying a notebook, I believe it’s important for writers to engage with the world in a way that isn’t words. Knitting, painting, singing, dirt biking— whatever sounds like a party to you, strive to make wondrous things with something besides fiction. By doing so, you’ll keep your brain limber, you may well stumble across a source of endless of birthday presents for your friends and the zen of monotony can be yours whenever you wish.
Besides, even the act of trying new things can be inspiring, so do that thing you’ve been thinking of doing instead of worrying about being stuck on your dream story.
It’s the start of another long, hot Arizona summer. I am annoyed with having to live in a timeline where literary torture porn is considered art and Hulu is getting awards for theirs. My sibling is on the phone, complaining about the initiative at her hospital to guilt women for declining to breastfeed.
My first thought its I’ll show you (some nebulous, hypothetical you) literary. Well, what’s literary? Found manuscripts with lacunae are literary! Again, apparently.
I write what was originally the first line. “You didn’t tell me she was pregnant.” I sit back and I think— that is a proper Naomi Mitchison pipe bomb opening. This is what actual pro-woman fiction looks like. I then bang on about beading and ships for five-thousand words.
Personally, I find anger very inspiring. But again, you don’t have to be angry about big things, or even the same things other people are angry about. You don’t even have to be angry at all if that isn’t what inspires you. Every author is different. But if you are angry, even over something trivial, it’s very OK to put the energy of your anger towards your writing.
My bookmarks are frankly embarrassing in this regard. I imagine that another person looking at them and not knowing what they were for being utterly appalled by some of them! I know one thing about them though: whatever they are, and however they do it, they inspire me. They are good for something, even if that’s the only thing in the whole, wide world.
You know, I don’t think that’s a big inspiration thing at the end of the day. I know what makes my author motors run. I am only myself. I can make suggestions all day every day, but I cannot know what will or won’t tickle the fancy of someone reading this essay and hoping to sell to Uncanny someday.
Only you can know yourself as a writer when it comes to inspiration. So, if you’re reading this, here’s a fun exercise— why don’t you imagine sitting me down and telling me the top three things that give you story ideas. No worries if you need to think about it some. This can be a challenging question. It is one, however, that I absolutely know you have the answer to.
You’ve probably figured out what my three main sources of inspiration are.
-The desire to share surreal scenes with other people
But, that’s me. Your inspiration, however you get it, is wonderful, precious and probably sometimes kind of a jerk. It is also, first and foremost, absolutely yours.
Though incidentally, if any of you know what other people think about when they’re beading, please tell me. I never did get an answer for that.
M. Raoulee is a queer author and artist howling with the grasshopper mice somewhere in Arizona. She has previously appeared in Broken Metropolis, Lackington’s and other fine venues which accept spite. In fact, you can go read three of the five stories above right now if that’s your jam. Catch her on Twitter, Instagram and www.mraoulee.net. Look out for the one-eyed tortie.