Jack London famously said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” This conjures an image of desperate writers tied to their desk chairs, pounding out reams of bad prose for days on end until something potentially worthwhile comes out. And this does happen, I assure you, but there are ways of “going after” inspiration that don’t necessarily involve the physical act of typing words in a specific story. Not writing doesn’t mean not writing; it means doing some of the work of writing in your head, rather than with your keyboard. Like any skill, or lawn, writing requires constant maintenance, and this maintenance is typically what triggers inspiration.
Maintenance: you should always be thinking like a writer. This doesn’t mean muttering to yourself he enters the room expectantly every time you enter a room expectantly (though it does make you feel important—try it!); it means mining every opportunity for potential writing gold. Try to:
Keep your inner reviewer on. Though guilty pleasures and relaxing go hand in hand, try not to experience the world, or its many forms of entertainment, too passively. When you watch Mad Men, take note of how the episode subtly suggests and then builds upon its themes. When you view a work of art, even if it’s just a particularly well-wrought graffito, articulate to yourself what draws your eye—the color, the composition, the scope? When you read a book or article or catchy little blog post, keep a critical tab of what you don’t like about it and want to avoid in your own work—awkward transitions, sloppy metaphors, poor word choice—as well as what intrigues or moves you. The more you keep this inner critic or reviewer switched on, the more you’ll start to identify, and the more you identify, the better you’ll get at appropriating the lessons you learn for your own work.
Collect potential ideas. Many writers keep scrapbooks of newspaper clippings and evocative photos, or jot down overheard conversations, or, you know, secretly record their friends when they tell stories about times they crossed a line or embarrassed themselves or illegally buried their second cousin’s urn in someone else’s grave. Most of these intriguing tidbits or fragments of stories don’t turn into full-fledged ideas, but it’s not necessarily what ends up in your collection that’s important—it’s the act of collecting itself. The act of opening yourself to inspiration, and of training yourself to sense patterns and to sniff out or hunt down what compels you.
Explore your own inner workings. Try keeping a dream journal––not for the dreams (it’s safe to say that writing a dream into a story is almost always a bad idea) but for the process it unlocks. Again, it’s not the end but the means that’s important. Giving yourself permission to explore your sub- and unconscious while its impressions are still fresh allows you to gain deeper and easier access to that part of your mind, which can lead to making better connections in your writing and articulating your half-formed associations more clearly.
Notice that these are actions––because this “not writing” is an active, rather than passive, act. Writers never turn off; writers never really relax. (Perhaps this explains the correlation between writers and depression or drinking?) So don’t forget to give yourself a break once in a while. You know, when you sleep.