Control your writing inspiration with hidden thinking

I had an idea for a story the other day. Came in like a thunderbolt, fully formed.

It's a self-portrait, in a deco hubcab. No really...

Seeing oneself distorted in a dream? It’s a self-portrait, in a deco hubcab. No really…

After a while I figured it wouldn’t quite work that way, but it was a start. And that begs a question. Where did the idea come from? I wasn’t thinking about writing a story, or even idly contemplating plot ideas – the last little while I’ve been fully occupied with non-fiction projects.

But that’s how the best ideas usually arrive. Isaac Newton, for instance, was resting under a hedge one day when a new mathematical principle suddenly occurred to him. He called it ‘fluxions’, though today we know it as calculus (and Gottfried Liebniz, who’d had exactly the same idea, was very annoyed).

The reality is that our minds are always hard at work behind the scenes. It’s a more complex process than usually allowed, and I figure a fair number of ideas come to nothing – we forget them, or they don’t emerge other than in dreams. They’re random. Like the idea that hit me. Yet we CAN control it consciously. Instead of letting inspiration ‘float in’ randomly, try this. It’s VERY important to do this with pen and paper. What you’re thinking may not be able to be represented in words at this stage. That’s fine. Draw a picture, a diagram – whatever best works for you to express yourself.

1. Write down the end point. Starting with the end point is the sharpest way to focus direction. It has to be an emotional outcome for you, and for your reader. But don’t try to figure out the journey there…yet.
2. Write down any ideas, thoughts, concepts you already have. Snapshots of scenes? Absolutely. It doesn’t have to be a specific project.
3. Work on these ideas a bit – refine them, see if they organise into patterns. Write them down again.
4. Take a fresh sheet of paper and copy the notes you’ve made, clean,  and manually copy the latest version. This manual copying is VERY important.
5. Now stick the clean copy in a drawer. And forget about it.
6. Go and do something totally different. Fishing, for instance.

What this does is set up relationships between ideas in your mind. The act of writing (or drawing) by hand and manually copying is vital because it involves so many different activities – reading, motor skills, memory, and thinking about the content. The aim is to get ideas moving & mixing ‘behind the scenes’. You might need to re-visit that piece of paper in a couple of weeks, re-read it – and maybe something will ‘click’. Or you could get an idea that mixes with what you’ve written – something totally left-field. That’s good too.

Does this work for you? Do you have a method of your own for triggering inspiration?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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13 comments on “Control your writing inspiration with hidden thinking

  1. KokkieH says:

    I get these random story ideas at times, sometimes while working or watching a movie, while driving, etc. I usually just jot down the idea in a notebook that’s always close at hand for this purpose. I’ve not taken the time yet to explore these further. But what you describe here is a good idea for first phase planning and I think can be applied to non-writing projects as well.

  2. This absolutely works. I also believe that the more different media types you can use in the process the better. The MOST important step is go fishing!!! :-)

  3. I always have some way to record ideas, even when I walk. As you say, any brief notation or visual aid will help. It’s as if with so many pathways in the brain our ideas can become lost, but if we note those ideas it’s the same as putting up street signs.

    Still, the way ideas come upon us borders on spooky at times. Last month I was out for a lengthy walk on a beautiful day. There were no clouds, the air was mild, and there was but a hint of breeze. At the same time there was pain within, for I’d learned the night before that someone I knew had passed unexpectedly, someone who helped my poetry surface several years ago. A single line entered my mind that I saw as nothing, but I continued to repeat it over and over. Nearly a mile later I stopped short, pulled out my pen and pad, and scribbled as fast as I could. It was if someone was dictating to me and I was struggling to keep up. The resulting poem became my tribute that person.

  4. gpcox says:

    I’m the old-fashioned type and write my posts out long hand first. Often, that ends up being the source of other spin-off ideas as I’m putting the pieces together – one thing leads to another…and so on…

  5. jsherwin2013 says:

    What you describe reminds me of the “brainstorming” I taught my students as a preliminary step to writing. Now that gives me an idea for a blog. Thanks for sharing.

  6. EagleAye says:

    I love this idea. I’m going to try it.

  7. KM Huber says:

    Great suggestions, Matthew, especially the manual copying–that works for me every time. My current project came out of a recent blog post and Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (“the hour of the pearl”). What is fascinating to me is that kernel from the post gave me a way to pull together scenes and ideas I had abandoned. As you say, it occurred just like that, and this time, I wrote it down. Again, great post! Thanks, Matthew!
    Karen

    • Glad to be of assistance! It’s a great technique. I firmly believe that we are framed by our writing tools in deeper ways than we often realise. Changing thectool and framework can produce startling results. I guess it boils down to the usual adage of variation being the spice of life.. And of writing!

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