Inspiration is a fleeting, elusive thing.
Sometimes you’ll think you have something, but then suddenly the Muse goes silent, disappearing in mid-sentence—buh-bye, you’re on your own!—leaving you stumbling in the dark.
And sometimes you can’t shut her up.
Often, she’ll just pop in at the most inconvenient times.
One of her favourite tricks is the middle-of-the-night inspiration, when she sneaks up just as you’re surfacing from a dream. You’ll be lying there in that deliciously dreamy, generative state between worlds, one of those luminous moments of not-quite lucidity, when a perfect phrase pops into your mind. You spin it out for a moment or two, still no more than half-conscious, and then YES! You’ve got something! It’s sheer genius!
These moments are pure gold. The trick is to capture them, which is kinda like catching a meteor shower—transcendently glorious, but only if you happen to be looking at the right part of the sky at the right instant.
Blink and you miss it.
In the middle of the night, you’re far more likely to blink, to succumb to the voice that says, of course I’ll remember this in the morning. It’s SO GOOD, how could I possibly forget it?
But you’re so very pleasantly relaxed, your limbs are leaden, your eyelids glued shut. The very last thing you want to do right now is turn on the light and write down that genius thought.
More often than not, the tiny part of you that says, no, actually, I won’t remember, I never remember, is overruled by the majority, who just wants to sink back into slumber and stay there till morning.
Inspiration has come and found you sleeping. You snooze, you lose. Literally.
What to do?
Personally, I keep a notebook and pens (lots of pens! I love pens!) by the bed, so when inspiration strikes in the middle of the night, at least I actually have the means to write it down, on those few occasions when I succeed in persuading myself to surface and turn on the light.
But the Muse doesn’t limit herself to odd hours of the night.
Oh, no, she also likes to pop in at odd moments of the day. She seems to prefer interrupting me when I’m doing something that involves getting my hands wet, like washing dishes or preparing a meal.
The key here seems to be that I’m doing something “mindless” that occupies just enough of my attention to leave my mind freewheeling, just relaxed enough that the smallest thing—a sound, a smell, a tactile sensation — can open the floodgates of memory. Usually this happens at one of those critical moments in the cooking process when I absolutely can’t stop to write it down, like when the oil is already warming in the pan and I have to finish chopping the onions to get them in there before the oil starts smoking.
So what then?
This will sound strange. I know.
I find myself talking it through, telling the story as I receive it to the onions or the fish or the bread dough. Then, as soon as I can break away, I’m grabbing the pen and paper I keep near the kitchen and writing like mad.
Another favourite inopportune moment for inspiration to strike is when I’m driving. I can’t be pulling over to write things down every time I get a cool phrase, not even when I get a full download in a heartbeat, as I sometimes do. So it might be hours before I get a chance to write it down. By then even if I do remember it, it will have lost its lustre and chances are I don’t want to pursue it.
On those occasions, I’ll get Siri to open the voice recorder or the notes app on my phone. I hate it—talking to myself is one thing, recording is something else altogether. I get awkward and stilted and I freeze up and lose the thread. But it’s better than losing the idea altogether.
Elizabeth Gilbert has said that if you don’t act on a story idea, the story might get tired of waiting for you and move on to another writer. I’ve had the experience of having something rolling around in my head for a while only to find that months or even years later, the article I should have written has been published in a magazine somewhere, written by
While I always believe that other writer has done it more justice than I could have done, I actually don’t want my story to move on just because I wasn’t ready to tell it. So I’ve found ways to capture the ideas as they arrive—pens and notebooks in every room, voice recorder at the ready when I’m heading off on a longer drive.
It still happens, though, and there’s been many a time I’ve had to let go of a great story because somebody got there first.
I console myself with the certainty that there are always more stories.
Each of us has more stories than we could ever possibly tell in a lifetime. It’s okay if we let one go.
And if it’s important to us, it usually resurfaces. That’s been my experience, anyway.
I’ve noticed in my own practice of contemplative writing that, regardless of the prompt I’m starting from, the same themes do come up again and again. If I really need to say something, I’ll eventually find the words.
Since I’ve been writing every day, following my mind and writing down what it says, it’s become easier to capture the ideas that come and go.
The regularity of the practice helps my mind relax enough to hear the call of inspiration when it does strike. Moreover, when I do hear the call, I can answer it more easily, with more words at the ready.
When I’m writing every day, inspiration is more likely to find me working.