Apprentice Wordsmith A Writer's Blog

Conscious and Unconscious Inspiration

Way back in 2015, I promised a post detailing my philosophical ponderings on inspiration. Unfortunately, I’ve misplaced my original notes, so that post may never be written. Still, I wanted to keep that promise with a post talking about inspiration, and I think I’ve stumbled upon a down-to-earth way to discuss it that better fits this blog.

We tend to think of inspiration as something that just happens, like vivid dreams or chance shower thoughts. They often feel like gifts from an external source – God, a muse, the Collective Unconscious, or some other cosmic power. These moments can be game-changing, so they ought to be cherished and recorded as soon as possible. But you can’t rely on them. There will be times when you need to trust in your own creativity and imagination to refine the inspiration and fill in the gaps.

One of the most important things I learned from my creative writing classes in college was a different approach to inspiration. It’s not solely a chance revelation; it can also be the product of a conscious (or at least semi-conscious) process. In a nutshell, the process is taking a variety of mental intake – news, life experiences, other stories you know, music that’s permanently wedged in your brain, etc – distilling it down to its essence, then using touchstones to rebuild it into something new. If you want a more detailed explanation, or have no idea what I mean by “touchstones”, I suggest reading “Building Characters Organically.”

I had to produce new work every week for those creative writing classes. I didn’t have time to wait around for inspiration to find me. I was forced to work with what I had. In a roundabout way, those classes forced me to develop and hone this conscious distillation skill.

Being a conscious skill, inspiration via distillation is something any writer can learn and hone through practice. The exact method, however, is highly dependent on the individual’s mind – how it’s wired, how it best processes information, how the imagination most comfortably manifests itself. This makes the skill difficult to articulate and teach directly. The best I can do is give you glimpses of how it works in my brain. Perhaps I can write about how I come up with writing prompts and Ideas to Steal every month and/or some of the aids I use to kickstart the distillation. My hope is that this post and related ones to come will prompt self-reflection and ultimately guide you to the particular method that best fits your brain.

One last thing I want to mention is that both types of inspiration – the unconscious gifts and the conscious products – need not be mutually exclusive. Plenty of my stories began as vivid dreams that I consciously refined and added elements to later. Other times, you can have various ingredients simmering in the back of your mind, but they finally click together into a story once you’re in the shower. My Friday Flash “Teardrop” is an extreme example, since the central concept of the teardrop sculptures had been simmering for years before I finally chanced upon a scenario where they fit.

Does the distillation process feel familiar to you or is it an entirely new concept? What tricks to you use to capture or produce inspiration? Please share down in the comments.

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