Monday, August 3, 2009


I have no idea what inspiration really is. The Oxford English Dictionary gives one possibly useful definition: "A breathing in or infusion of some idea, purpose, etc. into the mind; the suggestion, awakening, or creation of some feeling or impulse, esp. of an exalted kind." That one feels about right for what I mean today.

On Friday, I was sitting at a Chinese restaurant having lunch and reading "Moby Dick." Ishmael and Queequeg have just signed on to crew the Pequod. Anyway, for some reason I suddenly had an idea about my first novel, which I wrote some fifteen or so years ago and abandoned because, frankly, it's rubbish. But the idea that came to me out of the blue takes that rubbishy old novel and made it into something really cool, really interesting, and really entertaining. I was inspired all over again about the basic ideas of the book and wanted to write it.

Where did this idea come from? I've no idea. It's not at all related to anything in "Moby Dick" or anything else I was thinking about all day. It was just sort of floating out there and I breathed it in, as the OED would have it.

Which makes me think that perhaps we can have good ideas for novels but at the same time not have a good idea for how to tell the story. Also, possibly, the better we get at telling stories, the better our ideas about what stories are and what is required of us while telling them, the more of our good ideas we'll be able to actually turn into books. That's a particularly nice thought. For a while I worried that I would run out of ideas, or that most of my ideas would come to nothing, but I begin to think that, maybe, given enough time I'll come up with ways to tell the stories that have been sitting around in my slush file for years. We'll see.


  1. Good ideas are a dime a dozen. The rarity is the ability to turn a 150-word good idea into your 80,000+ word masterpiece (or even "good read" if masterpiece is a bit presumptuous).

    I have two active works in progress, and a nice file that I call my "idea mill" with future story ideas. After I get the current two off the plate, I know what the next two will be. After that I'm going to have to start flipping coins.

  2. Rick: That's a 90,000-word masterpiece, ta awfully. And, sadly, growing during revisions. I'm going to have to find things to cut, I think.

    But it's good to have more ideas than we can use at one time. I'm not one of those guys who can have a bunch of works in progress; I have to finish one thing and then move on or they all mash up in my head. Ouch.

    Say, congrats on the guest post for Nathan! Can't wait to read it Friday.

  3. If you run out of ideas, ask me for some. Sure, most of them will involve madness, but that's what crazy nephews are for.

  4. Justus: Some day I'll ask. Make 'em good ones.

  5. I sometimes thinks that inspiration strikes while . . . reading, listening to music, watching tv, or whatever . . . because our brains enter a semi-meditative state. No, I can't explain it in any detail. But, like you, I've often discovered inspiration while reading, watching tv, listening to music, or whatever. So, I take what I can get, when I can get it, and try not to question the source. : )


  6. Excellent points, all of them.

    I've been sludging through my first ever WIP, a bit terrified as I'm finding many published authors say their first draft of their first novel is junk. But I keep persevering. I must. I have a story to tell and as you state, I hope to get better at the telling of it in time and with practice. Carpe diem!

  7. Scott, I've thought about not coming up with any good ideas, too. I've thought, wow, I think my reserve is gone! But I know inspiration does come, and when it does, I have to grab it and hold on.

    I get so few good ideas, that most of them are worth pursuing. Some writers get so many that it's hard for them to decide which ones will work. I'm not sure which problem is worse.

    Glad to hear you were inspired. Keep us posted on if you're going to pursue this one or not! I need to read Moby Dick, by the way. It's one that's been on my list forever, moving it's way to the top.

  8. Oooh, Scott, this is your new definition for inspiration: "It was just sort of floating out there and I breathed it in..."

    That really struck me. That's how we get inspired. Great post!

  9. Scott: I think that if we keep exercising our imaginations, eventually everything reminds us of everything else and these creative moments where we make new connections that spark ideas will happen all the time. Which would be cool.

    Theresa: While I do think most first novels are probably pretty bad, they still have to be written. Also, there are some writers (like Johnathan Safron Foer who wrote Everything is Illuminated) whose first novels are brilliant. So keep writing and don't be discouraged. I like to think that when I'm working on my fifth or sixth novel, I'll still be learning things about writing.

    Michelle: Back when I wrote more short stories, I'd get terrified whenever I finished one. What if I never get another idea for a story ever again? I'm just pleased that I seem to have enough ideas to keep me writing for a couple of years. I don't so much want more ideas than I can use in a lifetime.

    Moby Dick has moments of brilliance separated by stretches of dull, open water.

    ElanaJ: My greatness all rests on my ability to rephrase the OED! My next book will be dictionary fanfic!

  10. Scott, I've got a few stories that have been waiting for me to learn how to tell them. That feels perfectly normally (but no less frustrating) to me. What makes me feel good about these unwrittens, though, is that they are signs of growth, both emotionally and technically for me. I feel like the harder stories are simply arranging themselves in my future, and like you, it helps me to feel like I won't run out of ideas.

  11. I know how that goes.

    Suddenly you're rushing to find something to take notes on (table cloth, napkin, small child's forehead) and with (pen, pencil, blood, diet coke) before the mysterious puff of magic goes poof.

    I adore that feeling. Though after the rush dies down, I'm often left wondering where the hell it came from. :)

  12. Davin: I like "stories that have been waiting for me to learn how to tell them." I have a novel in the vaguest of planning stages that I know I haven't the ability yet to write, but will someday. Or, maybe, I could write it now, but I know it will be better if I write some other stuff first.

    Erin: I have a big box full of the foreheads of small children with notes written on them. Can I put those in recyling when I'm done, or would they be yard waste? I can never remember.

  13. Best bet might be the compost pile. You know, to hide the evidence. ;)