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How To Be “Routinely Inspired”

Most writers need routines. But we also need inspiration. And those two items couldn’t appear more antithetical. Being “routinely inspired” or “inspired by routine” seems about as logical as being “programmed for spontaneity.” The two don’t mesh. So how does a writer craft a routine that cultivates inspiration?

Some would say you can’t.

Henry Van Dyke wrote, “As long as habit and routine dictate the pattern of living, new dimensions of the soul will not emerge.” Isn’t that what artists are about: uncovering “new dimensions of the soul”? However, Van Dyke suggests that when routine “dictate[s] the pattern of living,” inspiration suffers. Formulas and systems may work for accountants, but artists require elasticity. You never know when the muse will strike. So the last thing you want to do is force her into “your schedule.”

But we need schedules. So isn’t it possible to make one that accommodates muses?

Kathryn Lindskoog seems to think so. In her wonderful book, Creative Writing, For People Who Can’t Not Write, she catalogs a plethora of peculiar ways that authors have sought inspiration.

If creativity is partly a matter of having the right brain waves going in the right part of the brain, what can a person do physically to enhance creativity? Many writers and thinkers have come up with ideas of their own. Bosset wrapped his head in furs, Schiller wrote with his feet in ice water and smelled rotten apples, Prouse lined his room with cork and kept the windows shut tight, Turgenev kept his feet in a bucket of hot water, Swinburne isolated himself, Oswald Sitwel wrote best in hotel bedrooms, Thackery wrote best inside the busy Athenaeum Club in London, Voltaire dictated while sitting in bed, Descartes and Rossini created flat in bed, Victor Hugo composed on top of a bus, Samuel Johnson thought best in a moving carriage, Trollope wrote in a train, Thackery and Sothey could get ideas only when holding a pen, Balzac drank poisonous quantities of black coffee, Tennyson got his best ideas in spring and summer, and Einstein got his best ideas while shaving. Woody Allen prefers to write on a bed, with no noise or music to distract him. Agatha Christie said that the best time for planning a book is when you’re doing the dishes.

If this collection of oddballs reveals anything it’s that inspiration has no blueprint. It’s as varied as the people who receive it. Which may be the key to how it is received. Whether it’s “doing the dishes,” submerging your feet “in ice water,” or drinking “poisonous amounts of black coffee,” you must find the routine unique to your creative muse. Some like listening to loud music; others want complete silence. Some like sitting in a mall, others prefer being locked in a study. The point is not “what works,” but ‘what works for you“?

I had a pastor friend tell me about the time he was confronted by a church member regarding his use of sermon notes. “If the Holy Spirit had really inspired you,” they objected, “you would not require notes.” To which my friend responded, “But the Holy Spirit inspires me when I write my notes.”

If inspiration is like lightening, then it strikes randomly, unpredictably. However, this should not prevent us from sending up kites whenever possible. Whether it’s A.M. or P.M., indoors or outdoors, seat-of-the pants writing or strict plotting — get that kite in the air! Like good ol’ Ben Franklin, you never know when that string will become a fiery conductor of your next “big idea.”

Sure, routines can become ruts. Your challenge is to maintain a writing routine without quenching that creative spark.

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Question: What routines have you found that uniquely inspire you? And how can you tell whether your writing routine has become a rut?

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{ 14 comments… add one }
  • Jay June 10, 2010, 5:38 AM

    To rouse my muse I gut a three-legged baby lamb and smear the entrails on my pate. That’s pretty scriptural, right?

    But seriously, part of what I try to do to keep the mind wound up tight is actually physical things. I work out everyday and don’t eat garbage, no smoking, booze rarely, and 6 or 7 hours of sleep. No napping! This routine keeps my energy up and with some coffee here and there, I can wrestle the words when I need to. Facilitating inspiration doesn’t mean a whole lot if I’m too tired/lazy/feeling terrible to act upon it.

  • Jenna June 10, 2010, 6:24 AM

    It’s amazing how many ideas I’ve gotten while doing the dishes! LOL Maybe the best way to be inspired is by doing something totally un-inspiring, huh?

    • Mike Duran June 10, 2010, 6:40 AM

      I must admit, I’ve NEVER thought of doing the dishes as a means of inspiration. I will only try that if I’m very, very desperate…

  • Keli Gwyn June 10, 2010, 6:35 AM

    I write historicals while sitting in my home office in front of my desktop computer with iTunes open to my classical music folder. When I hear the first strains of Vivaldi’s FOUR SEASONS, I’m transported to my alternate reality, 1870s California, the location of my wip.

    When the words begin to slow and I’m in need of an infusion of creativity, I take a walk. Strolling past Victorian homes that have been fixtures in my Gold Rush town for over 150 years inspires me. I return home full of fresh ideas, sit at the keyboard, and the words flow.

  • RJB June 10, 2010, 8:18 AM

    My most inspiring routine is to read the scripture daily, especially from psalms. The word rarely fails to inspire me, no matter how bad a day I’ve had.

    But your post got methinking, there is nothing more routine in life than marriage. Let’s face it, marriage is stiffenly redundant. When, what, how, where you do anything gets filtered through the routine of marriage. So why do we get married? Because on the flip side, nothing is more inspirational than love. If your creative juices are down, nothing kickstarts them faster than love expressed. Especially new love. Thats inspiration overload.

    I suppose thats why so many artsy types get divorced regularly, they’re searching for that new love inspiration. The problem (if you can call it that) for Christians is that stalled inspirations is not a Biblical grounds for divorce.

    I wish I had the answer to this, I’ve been married 17 years so you think I would, but how do we maintain inspiration, inside the routine of marriage?

    • Mike Duran June 11, 2010, 5:55 AM

      Great question, RJB. In marriage, romantic inspiration is definitely something that can be drowned by routine and familiarity, and must be worked on. This year will be me and Lisa’s 30th anniversary. The “glitter” of falling in love has become something much deeper. We don’t require “inspiration” in the way we once used to. We’re more secure in our relationship. This isn’t to say we don’t need to nurture the spark, but that the spark isn’t what keeps us going.Translating that into writer’s terms, maybe there’s a point where we don’t need inspiration — we need to write. If we wait for a romantic spark to love our wives we’re no better than the writer who waits for inspiration to write.

      • Jessica Thomas June 11, 2010, 6:18 AM

        Great parallel. That gives me something to chew on regarding my own marriage.

  • Kat Heckenbach June 10, 2010, 9:31 AM

    The things I tend to do to get the creative juices flowing are reading and taking a walk. Generally, not at the same time though :P. Not very unique, but they work.

  • Jessica Thomas June 10, 2010, 12:35 PM

    For me to ‘feel’ inspired requires a lot of down time, which I rarely get. Which has led me to discover that you can train inspiration (good ideas) to come at certain times of the days if you make a habit of always sitting down with a pen at say, 11:30 a.m. After several days, my brain gets into a rhythm and I carry a low level of ‘inspiration’ with me between those times so I’m ready to go when 11:30 comes along.

    The notion of an artist creating in spurts of energy is romantic, but I don’t think it’s realistic, nor is it particularly healthy. I figure, if I’m going to work at something for 30 or so years, I better maintain a workable pace…otherwise, I’ll burn out quickly and nothing will get done. Along with that goes taking care of myself (like someone else mentioned): eating right, exercising, stress management, etc. This helps me stay alert with a steady stream of creativity that I can pull from when I need to.

    Not as romantic sounding as creating in fits and spurts of passion, but…I would argue this ‘slow and steady’ approach is probably actually more biblical. (Granted, my left brain has to remind my right brain often that slow and steady wins the race.)

    • Mike Duran June 11, 2010, 6:04 AM

      Great advice, Jessica. I think it was Koch who said that consistency breeds inspiration. The more we just sit down and write, the more likely we are to be inspired. The more we sit and wait for inspiration, the less likely we are to write. thanks for your comments!

  • Jill June 10, 2010, 7:21 PM

    When all else fails, I bang my head against the wall until the words spill out. 🙂

  • Nicole June 10, 2010, 8:27 PM

    I prefer the alone and quiet atmosphere. I’m easily distracted. The inspiration cannot be forced for me, and I’m grateful to have learned that if the writing stops, I take a break. Go away from the words until I can’t stay away any longer. During the breaks, I read novels. (And I have one going on even while I’m writing.) And the mind really never truly “goes away” from the story. It simmers.

  • charlie January 24, 2011, 9:50 AM

    I am normally inspired either when I am lying in bed and cannot get to sleep (which is quite often) thought when this happens you have to remember it in the morning. And also i find myself inspired when on the loo, it sounds odd, and people always complain i spend too long in the bathroom, but i am having constant minature epiphany’s on the toilet, it helps me. 🙂
    But if you ever hear something, or a line or word pops up in your head that you could make something out of, dont sit there and try and figure it out in your head, write it on paper so you don’t forgot it, and I’m sure you will suddenly flood out with inspiration as soon as you see it on paper.

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