“Write about anything!” said the email, and at the word “anything”, my mind wandered away. When you can have anything, there’s only one thing left to want: the joy of being denied it. The masochist knows this, and writers are all masochists. Why else devote your days to a task so hard and thankless? I took to twitter to ask for inspiration – I’m insanely lazy – and some wag suggested I write about inspiration. So here goes.
We tend to associate creativity with freedom, but often creativity thrives in shackles. Kicking against some restriction, be it external or internal, intentional or unintentional, can throw up interesting results; facing down a problem which needs solving brings about originality and resilience, even if the problem is a nonsense you’ve manufactured. Without constraints, we feel bored and uninspired: when everything is possible, nothing is that interesting. I’m tempted to write something here about how necessity is the mother of invention, but that does’t quite work in this instance; the ‘problem’ in artistic fields needs to be a playful, silly one, rather than the problem of being unable to feed your children, which is unlikely to result in a frolicsome piece of prose. As with masochism, people who are truly powerless tend not to play with the notion of being powerless. It’s a perversion of the privileged.
How did I get on to masochism? Back to inspiration.
We don’t need to look at the obvious examples of Solzhenitsyn and the other numerous great writers who emerged from Stalin’s gulags, finding moments amidst the hard labour and harsh weather to produce some of the greatest literature of the twentieth century. Take Brunel, the great engineering innovator, constrained by having to sell his stupendous ideas to railway and shipping companies, needing always to worry about their cost and production. Shakespeare wrote his Lear in quarantine; Newton, his theory of calculus. When facing scarcity of any resource, we are forced to make innovative use of what we have. This is good news for the writer constrained by limits of time or money, which is probably many of us. If you’ve five minutes to wait for your train, scribble a description of the man waiting alongside you; imagine his day, youth, dreams, how he feels about his bag, whatever. That five minutes becomes an exciting challenge rather than a tedious grey blob to exist through.
Ideas that seem to be new, or at least borrowed and vamped up a bit, make a remarkable difference to how we view demands upon our time and purse. If charities put out an appeal that they need to raise money and awareness for X, they’re greeted with a universal shrug and collective meh. If they decide April is Wear a Dead Cat on your Head for Mumps Month, they’ll be overwhelmed with interest and funds. However idiotic, imaginations need to be captured. Like those writing prompts you see on twitter: A funeral in space, slightly sullen, your grandparent likes pina coladas. You haven’t got any ideas? OK use one of these, and if you don’t like any of them, that’s even better: write about not liking them.
In truth, that insane laziness of which I boasted is the problem. Brains are forever looking for ways to save energy, opting for the same tired old way of thinking and being. Given limitless freedom we choose what we know. When I can think anything, I think nothing I haven’t thought a million times before, usually, sherbet is nice, I wish I had some sherbet.
pauses to rummage in cupboard for sherbet
Seriously, why didn’t I decide to write about sherbet instead of inspiration? There are many interesting observations I could make about sherbet, surely. That sharpness mixed with sweetness, bound to be a metaphor for something, love, loss, capitalism, solitude. That exciting fizz that prickles the synapses would probably be illegal if only those that make the laws could remember being eight and experiencing that thrilling giddiness from accidentally snorting instead of sucking.
See, that’s the joy of writing: start with one idea then move sideways into something else; decide to scribble out most of what you’ve already written, or stick with your rambling chains of thought and claim you’re being post-modern, and anyone who doesn’t like your work is too dim to get it.
You needn’t wait to be busy and skint before you can come up with fresh ideas. Make up your own silly freedom restrictions. In many ways, the more arbitrary and bizarre the better. Consider Luke Wright, who often chooses to write (magnificent) poems that make use of only one vowel. This forces him to take risks with language and consider how far he can push it and still manage to convey meaning. “Cool London sloths go North to Bolton/Oz – proto fop on lots of pot” is how he begins Ron’s Knock off Shop, which sells “poo-brown ponchos, off food, crossbows, Goth porn…” So create a restriction, go forth and produce. Decide that you must or mustn’t use a particular letter or word; tell yourself you must write about the least inspiring and most mundane thing imaginable. I got rather a good story about cat fleas from doing that once. Turns out they make a fine metaphor too.
Too many constraints on creativity, too much fear you might be fielding a flop, however, you end up with Fast and Furious Fifty. Trick is to know when to break the constraints. Having spent five minutes writing about a man’s relationship with his bag, you might find you’ve started a 900 page novel about toxic masculinity. That’s smashing too. Once you’re inspired you’re allowed to break every rule. Then write advice for other writers about how you did it.
© 2020 Melissa Todd
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.