Finding Inspiration: A Homework Assignment

March 19, 2012 | 11 5 min read

coverMy memory might be severely flawed, but I seem to remember that in graduate school it was uncool, maybe even forbidden, to talk about inspiration. We were about the work itself, one word in front of the other, and deadlines, and have you read Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, and what’s your take on the retrospective voice? Gauzy ideas like inspiration were not to be bandied about; perhaps such an idea struck us as un-serious, like in-class writing exercises. (True story: In our second year, a friend of mine filled out a Proust Questionnaire at my house; when it asked what her idea of hell was, she wrote, “Timed writing exercises.”)

I actually love in-class writing exercises: doing them, and asking my students to do them. I like having only fifteen minutes to write a scene, to create a world out of thin air, my inner-critic be damned; it’s all the better when the result is total tripe.  Writing badly is a risk one has to be willing to take, in order to come upon something worthy. And it’s good for the soul to write fiction that might not live beyond your notebook.  (If that pains the more stingy among us, imagine these failed exercises as the future jewel of your archives at The Harry Ransom Center. And don’t act like you haven’t already fed that fantasy.)

I’ve also found, in the last year or so, that I like to talk about inspiration with my students. I like to ponder it privately as well, after my writing day is over, and the next one is looming. It’s a topic I find especially cogent to the novelist, who must commit to a long project that won’t always be a party cruise to write. I give my returning novel writing students a handout which asks, “What’s keeping you writing?” This, I admit, is a cheesy question, but an important one. A novel-in-progress must have its aesthetic seductions (the shifting perspective, maybe, or the challenge of covering fifty years in ten pages, or the delight of a brilliant but unlikeable narrator), as well as some je ne sais quoi magic. You must remain inspired. How else to justify the slog?

In her beloved TED talk about inspiration, Elizabeth Gilbert finds solace in the ancient Greek and Roman view of  creative genius: that it’s a magical being separate from the artist, who arrives (and leaves) at will. This way, the torment of artistic creation is externalized — it’s a “collaboration,” rather than a lonely endeavor where only the stupid, untalented artist is to blame for her failure. Gilbert asks, “Is it rational, is it logical, that anyone should be afraid to do the work they were put on this earth to do?” By the end of the talk you agree with her — it isn’t rational, it isn’t logical, it’s wrong! Adopting this ancient view of creativity remakes the process so that it’s compassionate, without guilt and fear.

(But graduate students are probably allergic to Elizabeth Gilbert too.)

Even Gilbert, though, says that you have to hold up your half of the agreement, and do the work — create the opportunity for genius to arrive. And, I can’t help but add that a lot of the time this doing-the-work…sucks.

coverIn the final chapter of On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner puts it like this:

“In his noninspired state, the writer feels all the world to be mechanical, made up of numbered separate parts: he does not see wholes but particulars, not spirit but matter; or, to put it another way, in this state the writer keeps looking at the words he’s written on the page and seeing only words on a page, not the living dream they’re meant to trigger.”

Exactly! Gardner’s own suggestions for fighting this feeling include reveling in language itself, seeking out a community of fellow writers, and even, autohypnosis. “If the trick doesn’t work,” he writes, “never mind; sitting for half an hour in a dimly lit, quiet room is good for the psyche.” Mr. Vivid and Continuous Dream of the Mind sounds downright hippie in this section, and I love it. It proves just how far writers are willing to go in the name of writing.

One of my students, Melissa Chadburn, tried Gardner’s suggestion for autohypnosis, and said it actually worked. We read his essay for my Saturday morning novel writing workshop, and this was the first of many discussions about inspiration, artistic vision and intent, and writerly commitment. Melissa is a published fiction writer who recently wrote about taxes, among other things, for The Rumpus. Melissa is almost done with an autobiographical novel which she’s re-imagined and re-structured a few different times. Where other writers might have said, “Okay, I surrender, I’m done,” Melissa continues to ask herself how she can make her novel better. She takes critiques seriously, seeks out book recommendations, and then dives back into her text. Like all good writers, she has tenacity as well as talent. The workshop she’s in is full of students with this kind of heart and commitment; I am incredibly grateful.

(Source of inspiration for teachers: students who consistently do their homework, and do it scary-well.)

Every session, I ask students to make a “skeleton” of their novel, a term I borrowed from young adult novelist Cecil Castellucci, who writes what she calls “a skinny skeleton” of every book she eventually publishes. It’s the blue-print, the intensely detailed outline, the major scenes. In my class, the “skeleton” assignment is much more open-ended; I simply want students to conceive of their books in a way that will help them write them. This can mean a traditional outline, or a poster board covered with venn diagrams, or a series of character sketches. Do whatever it takes, I say, to get you to understand your book better. With this assignment, I’ve seen everything from a Power Point presentation, to a mock-interview between writer and invented journalist, to a wonderfully fastidious description of each as-yet-unwritten chapter. And I’ve witnessed students experience revelations about the stories they’ve chosen to tell. It’s one of those fun assignments that’s deceptively useful.

In the most recent iteration of this class, I had returning students either revise their skeletons from the previous session, or make new ones. Go wild, I said.  Do whatever it takes, to keep writing this thing.

Melissa came to class with these…boxes.

They were cardboard jewelry gift boxes, and there were three of them, one inside the next. The first bore the title of her novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, on its face. The inside of this box contained a smaller box, decorated with a monkey (“Because…duh,” Melissa said, or something like it), and a piece of paper, which described her book’s premise. Inside the monkey box was an even smaller box, this one decorated with a plastic heart. On the inside of the monkey box, Melissa had written a shorter version of the novel description, distilled from the notes on the piece of paper.  The smallest box — we all leaned forward to see — was empty, except Melissa had written the book’s premise on its inside. She’d distilled it to a single sentence: “Chronicles the life of a woman who was separated from her bipolar mother and placed into foster care at 15.” She told us she’d been struggling with how to describe her book to people who asked about it. This project forced her to find the book’s main idea, its essence.  It ended up thrilling everyone in the room.

The boxes were funny, and strange, and beautiful, and important. I keep imagining Melissa struggling to write in the margins of the smallest box, and it moves me. Making this project wasn’t novel writing, of course, but it enabled Melissa to return to her book with a fresh perspective. It helped her to keep going. That’s what we’re after, isn’t it?

I believe in rigorous and thorough workshopping, but I’ve got to get my students to write the pages in the first place. We’ve all got to write in the first place, and sometimes that’s the hardest thing.


Okay, so here’s the homework part of this post:  Make a “skeleton” of the writing project you’re working on, and make it as unwriterly as possible. No outlines, no character sketches. Instead, do something surprising and weird and beautiful and fun; the only requirement is that it provides you with a new outlook on your work, and gets you pumped to write.

When you’re done, take a photo of your skeleton and email it, along with a description, to The assignment is due Monday, April 2, 2012.

We’ll post the results on our Tumblr and Tweet them, too. Maybe they’ll inspire all of us. We can be each other’s geniuses.

(Oh, and: graduate students are allowed to participate, too.)

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.