Writing inspiration isn’t always simple. Sure, spontaneous inspiration can come from anywhere—the eggs you had for breakfast, a phone conversation with an old friend, a bunch of withered lemon slices scattered, for some mysterious reason, on the sidewalk. But long-term inspiration is different. Writing is a complicated process, and that’s true whether you write professionally or spend time with personal writing projects that are important to you. The constant fuel that feeds this complicated process is probably more often than not an engagement with the process from the other end. In other words, reading.
That being said, it’s not like it’s easy to turn a genuine love of the written word into a fulfilling writing habit. Many people struggle to write even though they absolutely want to. This can take the form of feeling too under-inspired or under-confident to pitch an editor of a publication you admire. Or never quite finishing the story you’ve been working on. Or abandoning your personal blog even though updating it would normally bring you pleasure.
I’m not positioning myself as someone who has transcended these scenarios or can’t relate to them. I’m painfully familiar with all of them, and still deal with all of them. I also think that people struggle with writing for a number of reasons. But I believe it’s rarely a bad idea to return to the ultimate source of writing inspiration: reading. I’m saying this to remind myself as much as to share the idea with you. If you really want to write, then chances are that at some point, reading inspired you. Below are some possible ways to channel that inspiration into your own words on the page.
Even if you’re not primarily interested in writing about books, thinking and communicating about them can help you understand what it is that you like about the things you read. Sharing your thoughts in the form of writing or out loud with other people will additionally get you in the habit of expressing yourself through words.
Even if you just post book reviews on a personal blog or on Goodreads, putting yourself in a situation where you have to articulate your thoughts about a piece of writing can be really useful. It increases your ability to understand written work, which in turn grows your confidence in your own writing.
Feel hesitant to post negative reviews of someone else’s writing? Don’t trust your ability to adequately judge work? You can always just focus on untangling what you like or don’t like about a book. And of course, you’re free to only post reviews of books that you like. The important part of this exercise is being able to explain your own reactions to yourself. If you want to write in a way that’s satisfying to you, it can be helpful to understand why others’ writing produces certain feelings in you.
Not all thoughtful criticism has to happen in written form! It can be nerve-wracking to share your written thoughts with the world, especially in a form that’s more or less permanent. Sure, you can edit a blog. But putting your words out there is different from having a casual discussion with a friend.
Speaking of which, no one says book groups have to be super formal or anything. All you need to do is find at least one other person who shares a love of reading, and plan some of your time with them around reading and discussing books. Discussion doesn’t polish your writing skills like reviewing does, but it does give you the benefit of weighing your own opinions directly against someone else’s in a controlled situation. This may in turn help your reviewing confidence.
If you’ve felt serious about writing at any point in your life, you’ve probably had at least one writer you’ve idolized. It can be exceptionally difficult, when another person’s writing represents the ideal to you, not to attempt to start writing like them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, which we’ll discuss more in the next section, especially if it’s fun for you. But trying to write like someone else, intentionally or unconsciously, can keep you fussing over small details in a way that’s arbitrary and unnatural. (This obviously doesn’t apply if your main goal is writing fan fiction.)
At the same time, you can’t just shut off your feelings of adoration for someone else’s writing, and you might feel like you have to do something about that adoration.
If you’re in that situation, try this: Instead of imitating that other writer’s style, contemplate what they actually accomplish with their writing, and try to imitate that.
For example, maybe your favorite writer writes one new book every year. That’s a goal you could strive for yourself. Or maybe they write hard-hitting microfiction that never runs over one page. Aim to put your own work within those boundaries. Feel free to try anything that seems fun and desirable. Limitations that don’t actually define your work can be helpful and exciting.
I went through a period where I was really into George Saunders’s short stories. I carried a copy of In Persuasion Nation around with me wherever I went for about a year. During this time, I also wrote a couple of satirical articles for a local zine that one of my coworkers had started. These articles were about real issues—one was about gentrification in the neighborhood where I lived. But because I had Saunders’s stories on the brain, I was always thinking about his stories while I wrote, and felt like I was inventing my own Saunders’s characters as fictional narrators for my articles.
I realized later that my narrators were actually quite different from his, stylistically and in other ways. But the energy he gave off was all about taking the ridiculousness of capitalism to its logical extreme, and that’s what I was doing, too. I was being inspired, but not actively imitating—not the way I thought I was. My satire was fiction lite, inventing fake people to comment on real situations. I think that if I had tried to write short stories in a more purely fictional world, I would have fallen into the trap of trying to imitate Saunders’s style more sincerely, and less helpfully.
When you apply a style of writing to a different format, you have to grapple with translating the feeling of the writing to a new situation. Which can sort of force originality and creativity, whether you notice that happening or not. You have to isolate the core of what you like about a piece of writing and attempt to make it your own.
So maybe try applying what you like about someone’s poetry to your fiction. Try applying what you like about someone’s fiction to your criticism. The result might be not only something that makes you happy but something that’s more you than you expect.
This might sound like an obvious suggestion, but it’s one I’m guilty of foregoing. I often don’t reread the books I would swear are continually inspiring me, because I’m too focused on finding new stuff.
However, I’ve been better about this at times, and these are a couple things I’ve noticed do make a difference.
Sometimes just carrying around a book you love can encourage rereading and inspiration. This may be less relevant in the age of electronic readers, but you can also keep bumping the same beloved book back up to the top of your reading queue so it doesn’t just sit at the bottom of your digital stack.
Another option is to create some sort of special shelf, area on your desk, etc., where you keep books that you consider important to your life as a writer. This can not only encourage you to reread, but help remind you of your own goals, and create a positive atmosphere for your writing.
One continual piece of writing advice that I hear over and over is something like “write a little every day.” For me, this can be generously extended to “read a little of your own writing every day,” and even that seems near-impossible sometimes.
For this suggestion, I’m talking about whatever writing is most important to you. If you have a day job writing content or copy, but your true ambition in life is writing poetry, then I’m talking about the latter. It’s possible to do all kinds of writing simultaneously and be happy. It doesn’t make you a sellout. But it’s your dedication to the writing you care about the most that keeps all channels going. It’s easy to forget, especially when you’re just trying to survive mentally and physically, what you’re actually hoping to get out of all this.
My opinion is that this piece of advice doesn’t necessarily have to be about accomplishing any physical writing. It’s about reminding yourself of what you’re doing. What the long-term plan is. This might mean writing one word or a thousand words. It might mean rereading part of your novel every day until you’re done with it. It might mean simply sitting quietly for a few minutes and thinking about the plot of your short story.
It’s this returning to your goal, this dedication, that can keep you going over the years when things don’t really seem to be working. And whether you realize it or not, your writing will be growing and maturing the whole time, as long as you don’t completely neglect it. Or, honestly, even if you occasionally do, because writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and it can grow and mature as you do.
None of the suggestions above are meant to be a cure-all or to apply to everyone. But I hope they give you some ideas for staying inspired.