Cultivating inspiration

By Tom:

I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning — Peter DeVries.

We all love flow. The muse is with us, whispering the perfect words into our mind’s ear, we can hardly type fast enough to get the ideas out and discover what our characters are going to do next. But how often does it happen? Why does it happen? Why does it happen when it happens?

You can probably guess that I don’t actually have an answer to these questions. Where does creativity come from? Where… do you get your ideas from? Pfft. Who knows? So, given this total capitulation, what can be learned about the nature of inspiration? What can be constructively done to cultivate creativity?

To follow on DeVries’ arch comment, it’s clear that waiting for inspiration is not a tenable strategy for writing a novel, unless you are willing to take a decade or two over it. Given the capricious nature of inspiration, a sounder strategy is to prepare yourself for its arrival and make your home as welcoming as it can be. What does it take to welcome inspiration? Well, you have to set out your psychological furniture carefully.

I find you can never have too many cushions

1) Start the day well

I’ve written before about the power of doing your most important things first (i.e writing), but another critical goal for the start of the day is to begin it well. Taking a few minutes when you first wake up to read, watch, or listen to something inspiring means that you prime your waking mind with motivation and set a good foundation for the day. Directing your thoughts onto a constructive track early on, helps to shape your mindset in a positive way and improves the odds that you will use the day well. This can be as simple as keeping a nourishing book by the bed, and reading a chapter before you get up, or subscribing to a vlog or podcast that has a morning feed. Start the day feeling inspired and you are far more likely to convert that energy into good words written.

2) Use down time to improve yourself

Everyone needs leisure. Passive time when you can recuperate from the stresses of the day and recharge. Often, however, the addictive nature of entertainment means hours are lost down a rabbit hole of social media, youtube or binge-watching boxsets. Eliminating leisure is impossible and undesirable for most people, and alternating between procrastination and guilt at our own weakness is equally destructive. So, the alternative is to devise a way of using your down time more constructively.

Given that most of us need some passive time, where we consume information or entertainment rather than creating it, a good goal is to seek out entertaining things that are also inspiring. This could be as simple as reading great books… but I’m going to assume that we’re all doing that anyway. Another powerful tactic is to soak up ideas about how to become a more effective, resourceful and competent person. Read biographies of people you admire. Seek out youtube clips of motivational speeches, great writers sharing ideas, tips on productivity or the psychology of success. Basically, fill your leisure time with passive entertainment that also motivates you to get writing.

Now, you may well argue – persuasively – that watching lots of youtube videos on writing technique, the philosophy of ideas, or motivational biographies won’t get a single word of your novel written. But don’t underestimate the impact of this sort of psychological priming on your behaviour. If you spend your down time filling your head with inspiring ideas you get two big benefits: (a) downtime becomes guilt-free leisure, rather than a guilty pleasure that makes you regret the lost time and resent yourself and (b) what you think about most of the time determines how you see the world and how you behave.

This last point is surprisingly subversive, but easily demonstrated. Read any of the reports about going on a “news diet” and see how dramatically people’s attitudes, perception and mood changes as a consequence of removing the drip-feed of scandal and outrage that otherwise colours their worldview. The echo-chamber effects of social media also demonstrate this truth; how you perceive the world (and yourself) depends on the information that you feed yourself. Fill yourself up with inspiration whenever you need a break from the labour of the day.

3) Capitalise on the satisfaction of small successes.

A good way to set yourself on the righteous path to writing nirvana is to celebrate small successes. The psychology behind this is to slowly, incrementally, change your self image from someone that frequently fails to live up to their aspirations, into someone that regularly enjoys small wins. Many people get stuck in a cycle of peaks of creative enthusiasm and energy that give way to troughs of procrastination, backsliding and abandoned drafts. The heart of the problem here is the scale of the highs and lows. It’s unrealistic to try and maintain the peaks of flow as an ongoing state, but the loss of flow doesn’t have to lead to a crash. A good way of achieving this is to set small targets, and reward yourself when you complete them. Set yourself a readily achievable goal: “I’m going to write 100 words this morning”. When you succeed, stop and have a reward. This could be a cup of coffee. It could be a walk in the fresh air. It could be 30 min on Facebook (set an alarm clock). It could be a doughnut (use sparingly).The main thing is that it is something that you look forward to, and so derive a little hit of pleasure when achieving it.

Another important aspect of this is to stick to the deal you made with yourself. Until the habit of success is established, don’t risk falling back into the old ways of working. If you sit down to write 100 words, you should write (approximately) 100 words. Don’t give into the temptation to go “Rah! I am in flow, I am amazing, I am going to write 2000 words!” Don’t train your subconscious to doubt your own word by breaking deals that you made with yourself. Finish writing when you are happy with 100 words, reward yourself, and remember that flow comes when you get started on something and exercise your writing muscles. Then set a target for tomorrow of 120 words.

The psychological impact of this is enormous. Setting small, progressive steps as modest targets and then consistently meeting them, is the best way of ingraining new habits and proving to yourself that you are the sort of person that can get things finished. Depending on how well you self-motivate already, you can set this bar quite low. If you’re really struggling to make progress, you can set it absurdly low: “I am going to write a complete sentence today”. You might think that’s laughable, but actually these sorts of micro-goals are very effective. Here’s a video by behavioural psychologist BJ Fogg on the topic, in case you are sceptical.

Overall, the broad principle here is that inspiration favours the prepared mind. Start your day right. Use your leisure wisely. Set modest targets and get used to meeting them. These are the tactics that can help mould you into the sort of person that gets books written.


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