One of the stressors that comes with writing is the fear of being unoriginal—that every story or poem we could ever aspire to write has, more or less, been written already. These are often the best ideas we have too, the ones that we know have already been recorded and developed; usually by the writers we idolize, ipso facto writers we already believe to be better than ourselves.
So the question arises: where can a writer derive inspiration for a story that is, for the most part, uniquely theirs. Entirely original. I’ve found, quite simply, that if you want to write a story that a writer hasn’t already written, then you must look to other sources than writers.
So where does this leave us? Here are a few places I’ve found inspiration outside of the pages of my favorite books.
I know little about art. Very little. I painted when I was younger, but between all the different extracurricular activities we juggle as youths, I no longer found the time to accommodate it. But, art yields close to infinite inspirational potential, and a lot of writers were amateur artists themselves. Kafka’s drawings, for example—Vonnegut’s as well. You can read the trial, you can read Slaughterhouse Five, but the drawings open new doors into the minds of these men.
But again, we’re trying to find inspiration outside of the writerly world.
Look at any painting, by any artist, renowned or unknown. Each brushstroke is like a sentence in a story, and the whole piece is a snapshot from a narrative—a narrative that remains untold. As a writer, you can take these snapshots—you can tell their stories. Look at the piece: what are the people in the piece thinking? How did they get to where they are in the painting? Do the people in the painting know each other? What are their individual stories? Extract characters, plot, a whole story from the canvas. It is easier than you might think.
Songs with lyrics are often stories. Even a stripped-down pop song tells a story. Some artists (to give a little insight into my own personal music tastes), like Iron & Wine, Cocorosie, The National, and others—their lyrics alone can stand by themselves as works of literature. However, they’re songs at the end of the day. Give the subjects of the song names. Give the story a setting. Expand on the details presented by the vocalist. Verbalize the mood set by the instruments. One minute of an instrumental can lead to hundreds of expressive words, if you give it the chance. Some people find that listening to music while they write is distracting, and I agree, to write well, you need to be strictly focused on writing. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t consider listening to music while you write as a sort of creative exercise.
Songs without lyrics can be just as inspiring. Listen to some Stravinsky, some Bach, or some Haydn. What do you see? What scene unravels in your mind, let your mind un-spin like a spool of narrative thread, close your eyes and follow it to the end. Does it remind you of a character? Does the song itself create a character? Let yourself create a movie, almost, in your mind—let the song be the soundtrack and you fill in the rest.
Listen to world music—let it introduce you to a setting you’d never envisioned before. Listen to the lyrics in languages you don’t know and extract the feeling from the voices. Focus only on inflection, on the long, drawn out wails, the gentle whispers. Sometimes the unsaid is more revelatory than words. Travel in your own mind, listen to the stories that you imagine being told. Then retell them.
Too often we are limited to reading from a literary canon, we find ourselves simply reiterating novels that everybody’s already read. Escape the canon and find new inspiration.