(My) Top 10 Sources of Inspiration

A (sort of) tongue-in-cheek list

The one question that every creative professional (writer, artist, musician, whatever) gets asked is: Where do you get your inspiration? Well, today I've decided to share with the world my top 10 sources of inspiration!

10. The 4-Mile Walk to the Frozen Yogurt Shop

When people ask me how to get around writer's blocks, I'm always tempted to answer cheekily: "Walk around the block." But what I really mean is, go for a long walk. Go for the walk thinking that you're going to get some fresh air, clear your head, get some exercise, anything except the problem you're facing in your writing.

Where I live, it's about two miles to the frozen yogurt shop in the next town over. Sometimes I walk all the way there, listening to music or a podcast on my iPod. When I get there, I'm feeling extremely healthy, so I obviously buy myself some frozen yogurt and put all sorts of toppings on it. Then I walk back (more slowly) eating it. Somewhere along the way, whatever problem I've been having with my writing is totally solved. It's magic, assisted by a lovely frosty treat. Try it!

(Also works with: ice cream shops, cafes where you can order a delectable coffee of some sort, cupcake shops, etc. The trick is to find one appropriately far enough from where you're writing so that you work off the calories of eating the treat while walking there and back. Sneaky!)

9. The Shower

It's true, hot water does more than ease your muscles. It seems to somehow open the pores of your brain. This is aided by the addition of really yummy-smelling soaps and shower gels. (Seriously, if you don't like your soap, the chances of finding inspiration in the shower decline precipitously.)

The trick is to focus on the shower itself: the water on your skin, the fragrance of your carefully selected cleansing product, the rituals of bathing. The likelihood of inspiration striking is directly related to the degree of focus you give the shower. The more you think about the shower and not your desire for inspiration, the more likely the inspiration will come.

(For some people, it also works with baths. I'm not really a bath person.)

8. The Traffic

Being in stuck in traffic could seem horribly frustrating, but it is also a source of inspiration. The next time you're sitting behind a long line of immovable vehicles, tell yourself a story. Anything. All you want to do is distract yourself.

See that blue Ford truck over there? And the guy in black-rimmed glasses driving it? Think about him. What the hell made a hipster (he's also got a super trendy haircut) get himself a Ford truck? It's probably because it's not his. He's borrowing it from his super butch boyfriend, who works construction, but is currently laid up in a hospital due to a construction accident. So the hipster boy is driving the truck to see him … except he might stop off at the construction site to pick up his boyfriend's paycheck, where he realizes that the accident WAS NOT AN ACCIDENT AFTER ALL.


(Just pay attention to the traffic, too. It's going to move sometime.)

7. Battlestar Galactica

If you haven't seen this television show, what have you been waiting for? It's the FONT of many an inspiration for me, and I know it can be for you, too. Wait! you say. Isn't that some dorky scifi show about robots?

NO! It is an incredibly nuanced story about life and meaning and honor and tricky, tricky villains. It is about God and gods, it's about love and hate, it's about forming alliances between people who may have nothing in common on the surface but underneath it all, they just want a home. And beyond that, the music is amazing, the visual imagery of the show is also spectacular, and most important of all, the characters are incredibly three-dimensional.

For me, watching a really complicated television series awakens my brain. It makes me feel like all my synapses are firing, and all sorts of ideas start sparking all over the place. It doesn't have to be Battlestar Galactica for you. Maybe it's The Sopranos or The Walking Dead or whatever — the point is, seeing something amazingly layered unfold over hours and hours can awaken all sorts of inspiration.

I think it can work with movies, too, as long as you are sufficiently drawn into the story to completely forget about your own writing. As soon as you forget, the ideas come.

6. The Book You Wish You Wrote

When I read a book that affects me so positively that I wish I'd written it, I feel inspired to push myself harder as a writer. This source of inspiration isn't really about generating a new idea; it's about generating motivation to improve. I see a beautifully crafted sentence and I think: I want to write like that. I read a multilayered plot and I think: I need to learn how to do that.

It's important to feed your motivation to improve, because if you don't have the motivation, you won't improve. I've found the best way to stimulate that motivation is to read books that amaze me. The best part of it is, I never know when a book like that will hit. When it does, it's like somebody gave me a gift out of nowhere. Don't you love getting presents? The only thing you have to do to get them is to read a lot. I guarantee you'll find books that turn your world upside down, as long as you don't stop reading.

5. Public Transit

Sometimes the train stinks (literally). Sometimes the bus makes me nauseated. But also: Riding public transit is an unending source of inspiration.

That woman with the pierced lip and the black eyeliner. Who is she? Maybe she's on her way to an assignation with a witch who lives downtown under the Macy's store. There are basements there that lead to the underworld, you know.

That boy slouching into his puffy black coat, carrying the messenger bag stuffed so full it takes up the entire seat next to him. What's in that bag? Is he a courier? And what is he carrying? What if it's the head of a zombie?

That's not even the most far out answer I could come up with. The point is that there are stories everywhere. Your task, especially if you're bored on the subway, is to discover them by asking a few key questions: Why? What is that? Where are they going? The stories will come right out.

4. The Book You Know You Could Write Better

We all know the feeling of finishing a novel and wanting to throw it against the wall because the premise, while initially appealing, took such an appalling turn that you can't believe the book was published! (No, I'm not telling you which books I felt that about.)

You can take this feeling of frustration and "THIS IS SO UNFAIR I CAN WRITE BETTER THAN THAT CRAP" and turn it, directly, into inspiration. Can you really write better? All right then, how would you have told the story? Then do it.

3. The Meditation Cushion

Many people think that meditation is about clearing the mind, about not thinking. I've been taught that meditation is about being present. It's about feeling the cushion beneath your butt, and the way your left leg is slowly starting to fall asleep as you try (sometimes unsuccessfully) to focus on your breath. It's about coming back to being present every time you notice that your thoughts begin to accelerate away from the here-and-now.

I admit it: I get distracted a lot when I meditate. I try to come back to the present as soon as I notice that I'm not here anymore, but (secretly) I don't really mind being distracted. Because a lot of the time, I've been envisioning some aspect of the story I'm writing. For me, there's something about sitting there and trying to focus on breathing that seems to throw open the door to my imagination.

It could be that I've been doing this for a while (er, coming up on nine years now) and I've trained myself to be this way. But I remember when I first started learning to meditate, I immediately noticed how much it opened up my mind. It actually felt miraculous to have that door open so easily and so regularly, and now I do it every morning before I write.

2. The Elliptical Machine

Some people will never be able to sit on a cushion in silence. For them, I recommend another tried-and-true source of inspiration: the elliptical machine. (OK, it could also be: running, the treadmill, a stationary bike, etc.) I cannot tell you how many thorny plot problems I've worked out while sweating on the elliptical at the gym.

I think it has something to do with exercising your physical body in a repetitive way. If you have to do something that requires concentration, like pilates class or lifting weights or doing an active yoga class, I don't think it works. You need to do something that your brain doesn't have to think about; something that your body can do all on its own. It helps if what you're doing hurts just enough to make you yearn to be distracted. (If it hurts too much, you'll just give up.)

To distract yourself, you can make up stories! Or you can let your brain wander around the problem that you're facing in your writing. I believe the fact that you're exercising and sweating will temper any fear of not being inspired/not coming up with the answer to your problem. Why? Because your body is too busy exercising to chastise yourself. And also: you're being so virtuous by exercising! You're already a superstar! Figuring out this writing problem will just be icing on the cake. And even if you don't figure it out, it doesn't matter, because did I mention you have been working out and being totally virtuous? Go ahead, pat yourself on the back and go have a doughnut.

(Doughnuts can also be inspiring.)

1. Dreams (They're Not Just For Stephenie Meyer)

Everybody knows that Twilight came to Stephenie Meyer in a dream, but don't discount dreams as a source of inspiration just because it seems so clicheed! Just the other day, I dreamed that I was in Las Vegas and had parked my car in a vast multistory underground garage. When I went to pick it up, lo and behold my car was gone! It had been stolen!

Luckily, in my dream, I overheard the thieves talking very nearby. They were two people: a youngish man with long dirty blond hair wearing a brown raincoat, and another person whose appearance I don't entirely recall but had curly brown hair. They fully admitted they'd stolen my car, along with something else … my heart, which had been stored in a jar.

The thieves suddenly ran away, vanishing instantly! The hotel manager, though, was at my side and guaranteed that he would catch them, since they had security guards posted all over the place.

Now, I don't know if your dreams are as crazy as mine, but if they're not, there's one way to make them more interesting. Start writing them down. I did this once, and I began to remember so many of my dreams that it was frankly overwhelming. I stopped writing them down, but these days I still remember them. Sometimes they're full of anxiety, and those aren't necessarily useful for inspiration, but every once in a while I'll have a dream that is SO FREAKING AMAZING that I run out of bed and write it down right away. One of those dreams gave birth to my next book, Adaptation.

And if you don't think your dreams are interesting enough to draw inspiration from, I give you my most recent crazy dream. Go ahead: write a story about a world in which people store their hearts in jars. What kind of world is that? And who would be stupid enough to leave their jarred heart in a parking garage in Las Vegas?

Good luck!