Creative writing, like any other form of art, needs the spark of inspiration. Where do our creative writing ideas come from? The origin of inspiration is the million-dollar question, but it’s also the wrong question.
We think of inspiration as something that comes to us. Throughout art history, it’s depicted as a divine gift. The tortured artist toils away in their studio until a light shines upon them from the sky to gift them with the idea they needed.
I wish it was that easy.
The toiling away part is true enough. The only way to achieve mastery at anything is by practising. But part of that practice is learning from others. And in creative writing, we learn from other storytellers.
Everything can be a source of inspiration — movies, music, paintings, books, eavesdropping on conversations.
Nick Cave has an interesting take on using other people’s work to create your own:
“The great beauty of contemporary music, and what gives it its edge and vitality, is its devil-may-care attitude toward appropriation — everybody is grabbing stuff from everybody else, all the time. It’s a feeding frenzy of borrowed ideas that goes toward the advancement of rock music — the great artistic experiment of our era.”
So, how does creativity work, and where can you find inspiration? In this post, you’ll explore the stages of the creative process and why imitation (or stealing!) is not always bad. Also, I share a few websites and resources to find writing inspiration in art, music, books, and movies.
Creative writing and the stages of creativity
In his book “The Art of Thought,” Graham Wallace lists four stages of the creative process:
Later research went into more detail about each stage. For example, artists spend a great amount of time problem-solving before creating. This is true for fiction writing, as well. Their problem-solving skills predict later success.
But preparation is also about finding sources of writing inspiration.
Other artists mentioned the benefits of copying, stealing, or using previous work to create something new. New writers test the waters by writing fanfiction. Painters in training sketch renditions of their favourite artworks. Beginner musicians take a riff off a song they love to make a new one.
In fact, copying is an integral part of a new artist’s path to develop their own style and taste. But imitation and copy aren’t exclusive to beginners.
Picasso took great inspiration from previous painters, such as Degas. Bob Dylan used all kinds of sources to write songs — from folk songs from previous decades to poetry. New genres evolve from older ones, both as a result of imitation or opposition.
It’s not surprising artists build upon existing work. After a few millennia, humanity has very little room for true originality. In that sense, creative work is a never-ending task of remixing different elements — other people’s work with our own ideas, taste, skill, and goals.
To develop your taste and skills, it’s important to be on the lookout for new sources of writing ideas. Anyone over 30 will know this can take more effort as you age. As your tastes consolidate, you find yourself spending less time looking for new art.
Where do I find inspiration for my creative writing? It changes all the time, just like for many other artists. But here are some of the stories that have inspired me recently. If you’re wondering how to find writing ideas, these will be a good starting point.
Where to find writing ideas to beat writer’s block
Sign up for recommendation websites
There are plenty of services that can help you find inspiration and fiction writing ideas.
If you’re a movie buff, Letterboxd is the place to be. You can keep track of the movies you’ve watched, add titles to your watch list, read reviews, see your friend’s lists and create your own. It’s the easiest way to find your next favourite movie.
Another great option for movie recommendations is Movielens. It’s run by GroupLens Research at the University of Minnesota, and it’s been around for many years. It’s not a social site though. On Letterboxd, you can find movie recommendations by browsing other people’s lists. Movielens shows you recommended films based on your ratings and preferences.
To find book recommendations, you might want to look outside good ol’ Goodreads. While it’s handy for book cataloguing and for guilt-tripping you when you don’t meet your yearly book reading challenge, there are better options out there for book recommendations.
TheStoryGraph is a better alternative. It shows you book recommendations based on filters like mood, genre, and book length.
Keep in mind there does seem to be a focus on English-language literature. There’s no option to change the language, nor will you get many recommendations from non-English speaking authors.
If art is what truly inspires you, Google Arts & Culture is your one-stop to see online exhibitions and access collections from all over the world. You can save your favourite artworks, exhibitions and artists to get a quick writing inspiration boost.
If you’re not an artist but still want to explore creating your own images, DALL-E is a fun option to explore.
DALL-E as an AI image generator. It creates images based on the prompts you feed it. The more detailed the prompt, the closer the results will be to what you want.
Digital artists are using DALL-E with stunning results, but it has applications for writers, too.
You can use it to create images of your imaginary worlds and characters, or you can use the results as writing prompts.
Here are a few results I got for the prompt “an Edward Hopper style painting of Alex Turner writing alone in a 1970s diner at night.”
If I change the name to Bob Dylan, the results are slightly different.
It’s also super useful to help flesh out your imaginary worlds. For example, I used the prompt “a realistic photo of a rainy city street at night with derelict art nouveau houses with stained glass windows and street lights, cyberpunk” as it’s a setting I often use for my stories. Here are a couple of outputs.
Keep in mind that it can take a bit of practice to generate quality images. Luckily, a DALL-E account comes with free tokens so you can give it a try, with the option of buying more tokens.
What about music? Many writers rely on music to help them focus, to evoke certain emotions, and even help them pace their story to match a mood.
Personally, I stopped using Spotify about a year ago due to their aggressive push for podcasts.
The focus on podcasts was detrimental to the quality of the music recommendations I was getting. My personalised lists started featuring more of the same artists, or music I didn’t enjoy. Unfortunately, Apple Music isn’t much better in terms of putting new music forward.
This is where Bandcamp comes along. Bandcamp is a music marketplace for both independent and established artists. You’ll find music in every genre, and because it focuses on independent musicians, you’ll find plenty of new music there.
Stories that inspire me
TV shows: Fleabag
You might have heard about this British 2018 show written by and starring ‘Killing Eve’ writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
It’s the story of a woman who makes peace with her mistakes, repairs her relationship with her family and goes on her way to allow herself to get close to people again. It’s a fascinating, thrilling, and heartbreaking show that will forever captivate me. If you haven’t watched it yet, what are you waiting for?
Here’s a fantastic breakdown of a sequence halfway through the show that explains what makes this a great example of storytelling.
As a writer, my main takeaway from this story is the pacing. Fleabag’s journey of forgiveness and self-acceptance feels natural. We see her change little by little, and her transformation shows in the small choices she makes.
Youtube: Fascinating Horror
These 10-or-so-minute recounts of man-made disasters are a never-ending source of inspiration for me. The facts-based narration with no sensationalism or gory details is still gripping. It doesn’t just tell tales of tragedy, but of human solidarity and greed, heartbreak and remembrance. And some of these are actually quite spooky.
I’m particularly interested in stories that leave more questions than answers.
Movies: The Lighthouse
The Lighthouse is only director Robert Eggers’ second feature film, written by Eggers and his brother Max and starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.
This is a film about two lighthouse keepers who most likely go insane in their isolation? I’m here for it. Robert Eggers triumphs in portraying the psychological decline of these two men.
And look at this cinematography — it’s atmospheric, claustrophobic, and precise. You can really picture a story set in a world like that.
Music: Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
Veteran rock musician Nick Cave sings about love and violence salvation and perdition with disarming, aggressive vulnerability. And in his work, you can see traces of the artists who’ve influenced him.
For example, listen to the way he tells the story of a man on death row.
I’m fascinated by these books. At the moment I’ve just started Children of Dune, and I can’t put it down. It’s fascinating to see stories that take tropes to their logical consequences.
What does power do to people? How does a good man deal with the choices he makes to hold on to power or to lead his people down the path he thinks is right? These are fascinating ideas to explore, and Dune does it superbly.
To sum up, creative writing ideas are easier to come by than you think. Whether you believe originality in art is still possible or not, what is undeniable is the fact that art isn’t created in a vacuum. Your tastes, experiences, culture and customs will colour the art you make. Making an effort to find new sources of inspiration is key to come up with fresh creative writing ideas.
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Liked what you read? Here are other blog posts about writing I think you’ll enjoy: Beat Writer’s Block With Your Camera App Photos: 10-Word Short Stories
Featured image: “Melpomene and Thalia” (1823–26), Johann Gottfried Schadow. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.