Where do you get your ideas?

Inspiration is such a lovely notion. I used to imagine writers wandered through their day – watering the lettuces, washing the breakfast dishes - until an idea burst upon them with a flash of light and clash of cymbals. The writer would then hurry to their desk to spend hours recording the stream of words. 

I knew this was a faintly ridiculous way to imagine the writing process. But I confess that when I decided to write a novel, I was hoping that all I had to do was settle at my desk in the hills behind Mullumbimby, in northern New South Wales, and wait for the muse to descend.

Unfortunately nothing happened. Inspiration did not strike. Instead I wrote and re-wrote (and re-wrote) the opening few paragraphs of a story, trying to keep the phrase ‘writers block’ out of mind. 

Then I was introduced to freewriting – which now forms the foundation of everything I write (including this post). Freewriting is the best way I know to distance that inner writing critic which can so effectively block writing and make it an unhappy and unproductive experience.

The story that became my first novel Salt Rain first appeared to me in a freewrite. I was writing away – not stopping, letting the words flow without worrying whether they made sense – when a character appeared on the page. She was sitting on a hill in the rainy dark, looking at the light coming from houses in the valley below. 

Actually, she seemed a bit emotionally disturbed, especially when she walked down through the dark forest to the houses and crept around looking in the windows at the people inside. That character really grabbed me and I kept freewriting about her. She became Allie – and (fortunately) became a little more emotionally balanced. An ensemble of characters appeared around her, each carrying their own stories – all of which came to me in freewrites. My first draft was a big collection of freewrites – and as I wrote I didn’t know what the story was going to be. The key revelations were as much as surprise to me as (I hope) they are to the reader.

The idea for His Other House was sparked by a man I read about in a newspaper article but I used freewriting to create the characters, setting and plot. 

If I was to say where the ‘inspiration’ for my novels comes from, I’d say that I let it come from somewhere within me. I don’t mean to suggest that I am channelling the stories from somewhere, but certainly I am not always in control of what emerges. I guess I see freewriting as a form of improvisation, like dramatic or musical improvisation. In the book ‘Freeplay’, Stephen Nachmanovitch writes: ‘Spontaneous creation comes from our deepest being and is immaculately and originally ourselves. What we have to express is already with us, is us, so the work of creativity is not a matter of making the material come, but of unblocking the obstacles to its natural flow.’

However much you plan your writing, I do think that allowing an improvised, experimental approach to writing allows the unexpected and exciting to emerge. 

I am also inspired in my writing by a particular way of seeing and engaging with the world. I think of it as the ‘writer’s eye’. It’s a way of being open to stories around me. It’s having a curiosity about people and situations. I ask myself:  Why does that woman hitch-hiker stand at that same spot at the same time every day and where is she going? Why are the curtains always closed in that house?  I’m as interested in the imaginative possibilities as I am in the real answer to my questions. From those imaginative possibilities, story arises.
My writer’s eye notices detail in the world around me: the particular way the skin on a pregnant belly stretches so tightly, or a woman at the swimming pool humming as she tucks her hair into her swimming cap, or a dog in the back of a ute meeting my gaze as the car passes.

Raymond Carver, the great American writer, wrote in one of his short stories: ‘He was between stories but tried to see everything and save it all for later.'
Some writers take notes. Apparently the Australian writer Helen Garner carries a small notebook with her. I have tried to do it and encourage my students to try it out but I find it easier to make mental notes of the things I see and then record them in my daily writing. I have an ‘ideas’ file in my computer, full of these small noticings.

I am sure that writing every day keeps me open to this way of seeing the world. If I don’t write for a week, it’s as if my eyes glaze over and I cease to see the wonder in the world around me and stop imagining ways to translate it into words. I will always write, if only in order to feel more connected to the world in this way. Writing every day also seems to keep my freewriting ‘muscle’ strong. By this I mean that my writing flows more easily and spontaneously, and I take more risks.

But ‘a writers eye’ and freewriting do not a novel or a short story make.
When I finished my first draft of Salt Rain I had a very unwieldly and messy first draft which I then had to wrestle into shape – taking into account plot and structure and the arc of the characters’ development. His Other House was quite a bit more ordered but there was much hard work to be done. 

Which is where perspiration comes in. I’m not sure how many times I’ve come across the saying: ‘Writing is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration’. 
The 99% perspiration is about turning up at the desk, inspired or not. Another well-known American Raymond - Raymond Chandler - wrote: ‘Set yourself regular hours and even if you can do nothing, do nothing else.’

I’ve learnt that I can’t wait to be 'in the mood’ for writing. Well, I could, but it would take me twenty years to finish a novel. At the moment I write every day. I have learnt how valuable it can be to grab small windows of time to write. In fact a 10 minute writing session before I go to an appointment can be more productive than 10 minutes within an hour-long session. The award-winning Australian writer Kate Grenville tells of scribbling part of one of her novels on the back of a Panadol packet while she sat waiting in a car. 

I don’t mean to suggest that every writer must write an organic, chaotic first draft (although I do think there is great value in it, especially for a first book) and not plan at all. In my third novel I am planning much more. I believe we each find our own balance of planning and improvised writing.

I’d bet that inspiration comes in different forms for different writers and our task is simply to find what inspires us most, to uncover the stories that we have to tell. Ultimately my greatest inspiration comes from the pleasure that writing brings me, the pleasure of fitting words into a satisfying order, and the way that writing helps me make sense of my world.

The last word goes to Texan writer William Goyen: ‘[Writing] is simply a way of life before all other ways, a way to observe the world and to move through life, among human beings, and to record it all above all and to shape it, to give it sense, and to express something of myself in it. Writing is something I cannot imagine living without, nor scarcely would want to.’

This article first appeared in the Northern Rivers Writers Centre magazine The Northerly.