Inspiration – How to Cultivate Creative Ideas

A lot of people talk about inspiration like it’s some magical, elusive thing – something we must be lucky enough to have bestowed upon us. They talk about talent like it’s the only feasible explanation for why certain people excel at an artistic discipline. It couldn’t have anything to do with hard work…

No, definitely not…

In my experience, being an artist is a LOT of hard work. But it is also messy and a bit chaotic. Just as painters might get covered in splatters of colour, you could say writers get covered in splatters of random words, ideas, and images.

But, it’s easy to use “lack of inspiration” as an excuse for not having the courage to dive into that chaos – the chaos of your own creativity. But I have never liked the idea that my creativity is dependent on some external force or some fickle muse. Instead, I take inspiration from anything I can: chance interactions with strangers, interesting sights both manmade and natural, the weird questions we ask ourselves during the day, etc.

Sometimes one moment will spark an idea, other times it takes years and several different inputs to feed into one thought. But in a way, I’m always searching for interesting things in my life. And I’m always trying to wonder what else is possible.

Look at My Pretty Idea Journal

Several years ago (eek almost 15 years? That can’t be right!) I found this pretty notebook when I was travelling with my mom. I remember trying to convince myself I didn’t really need to buy the silly journal. It was an unnecessary expense and it was just a notebook, after all…

But… but…

It was the perfect size! And it had a fun design that made it look old-timey and a bit magical.

Fortunately, despite me trying to pretend otherwise, I think my mom could tell I really wanted it, so she bought it for me (thank you momma!).

Since that day, I have carried this journal almost everywhere I go. I use it exclusively as an idea journal (i.e., no to-do lists or work notes). Any time I have a random thought relating to a creative project, I immediately jot it down in the book. And personally, I feel like the messier the journal is, the better. The chaos of creativity, and all that. So, I scribble random thoughts in the margins and draw arrows connecting thoughts across the page.

I also believe that writing with a pen on paper is satisfying and restorative. My dad bought me a Cross pen for my birthday one year (just a basic ballpoint, nothing crazy). It has a good balance and it feels nice on the page. So, now I only use that pen to write in my journal. It’s a fun little ritual.

But it doesn’t matter what kind of idea journal you have. It could be the notes app on your phone, or a bunch of scrap papers held together with a paperclip. All that matters is that you have someplace to put your ideas, someplace that works for you.

I do like the permanence of a notebook, though. That way I never accidentally delete an idea, or overwrite one on a whim, only to regret it later. I also think there’s something liberating about the pen to paper process. And I like holding the physical book full of all my precious treasures and secrety secrets.

Revisit Your Ideas and Don’t Rush Inspiration

Sometimes, after I jot down an idea, I don’t have anything more to add right away. Other times, I start writing and then more ideas flow one on top of the other and I can fill a whole page with character descriptions, world building, and questions about plot.

Inevitably the momentum will slow down though, and I’ll close the book and let everything simmer for a while. Sometimes only a few hours or days. Sometimes weeks or years.

But, every once in a while, I pick up the book and leaf through it, re-reading all my random notes. And I get a nice little endorphin rush seeing how many fun ideas I have, waiting for me to come play with them.

And that’s what they do – they wait. They lurk in the back of my mind, percolating until one day I have room for them to spring forth and claim my attention.

The Relics of Illayan, for example, was sparked by one completely random and goofy thought I had nearly 15 years ago (seriously? 15 again?). I pictured a fancy medieval goblet filled with a glowing potion. That potion had the texture and colour of molten gold.

And then I thought “heh… cool.”

I know, right? Seriously intellectual work going on here.

But that’s it. That’s how the entire story began. And if you’ve read the trilogy, you know that this golden potion is not exactly the main focal point. So, you see, it doesn’t really matter how small, random, nonsensical or downright dumb your idea is. It just has to plant a seed in your brain. Then it’s up to you to decide how, when, or if you want to tend that seed and cultivate your inspiration out of it.

How do you know you’re a writer?

The first draft of The Relics of Illayan, completed in September 2019.

Childhood – Oh How I Wish I’d Realized

When I was a child, I was always playing make believe with my friends, writing stories about anthropomorphic animals and acting them out at recess. Then, when I was about 9 or 10, my teacher invited me to read one of my stories out loud for the class. I remember this day clearly in my mind (or what my mind chooses to believe is true). I remember reading with such animation and comedic gusto, that the entire class was in hysterics. My teacher was crying she was laughing so hard.

In retrospect, this was it. This was the moment I knew I should be a writer.

But for whatever reason, it took another 15 odd years before I really understood it. In all that time, though, I never really stopped dreaming up story ideas. I wrote and self-published a children’s picture book one summer because I was bored at work. I remember my friend looking at it and saying, “Oh my God, Kathryn, this is what you should do!”

But friends are supposed to say that sort of thing, right?

I drafted some more children’s book ideas and sent them around to publishers and agents, collecting a fun little stack of rejection letters. Fortunately, being a classical musician, I have learned to appreciate the art of the rejection and I don’t take it too personally. But since no opportunities were arising in this direction, I moved on to other activities.

Teacher, Composer, or Writer?

Burned out from my masters in business, I moved to New Brunswick to teach cello. The benefit of living in New Brunswick is that I had a lot of quiet time to recuperate and get my creative energy back. During this time, I wrote some more projects for fun, including my first musical. I obsessively wrote an entire book and all the lyrics in roughly one month, and somehow still didn’t clue in to the simple truth…

You see, right around this time, I started to doubt myself. Despite the fact that I was already a professional cellist and composer, I didn’t think I had enough training in order to write the music properly. If I wanted to be a real composer I definitely needed a masters degree in music. So off I popped back to school to learn all the magical things that would somehow equip me to be a truly successful artist.

[Insert mirthless laughter] Oh, how naïve I was.

One does not learn how to be an artist at school, one learns how to be an academic. And in a graduate music program, one often learns how to judge and criticize all other artists and sneer down from a great lofty height of one’s own erroneous self-importance.

But I digress…

Another Masters Degree – Gotta Collect them Beanie Babies

While I was at The University of Toronto, studying to become a very important composer, I dealt with writer’s block for the first time in my life. I could not, for the life of me, bring myself to care about my thesis composition. So instead, I started writing one of the many stories I’d been carrying around with me for years, waiting until I “knew what I was doing.”

I sat down, thinking, “Eh, why not? Why not just start writing and see what happens?”

What happened was this: I could not stop writing. My thesis deadline crept ever closer, and no music was written, but pages and pages of story planning, character descriptions, and plot outlines poured out of me at an intoxicating speed. It was, quite simply, the best.

I blasted through an entire outline and then forced myself to stop. I returned to my music studies a little bitterly and composed my final thesis. As the degree ended, I realized I didn’t want to be trapped by institutional learning anymore. Neither of my masters degrees had been as rewarding as I’d hoped, and I was tired of learning what I was told to learn, and writing what I needed to write in order to pass courses. I wanted the freedom to choose and create my own dreams.

I’m Not a Workaholic, You Are!

This period of time, I refer to as my “Wtf is Wrong with You” period. This was the period of my life where I was finishing my second master’s degree while working a part-time job and a brand-new full-time job, and somehow still working on my novel in the back of my mind. Yes… I don’t know what is wrong with me, but I’m working on it.

With the master’s degree finished, I launched myself back into the novel (still working two formal jobs and freelancing as a cellist and composer… because, you know, I like to have a really light workload). Part of me wondered if I really had what it took to be a writer, to follow through on the project all the way to the end. After all, anyone can plan a book, but a writer needs to sit down and actually write it.

Needless to say, I did follow through on the project and it has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It was an enormous undertaking, but – and this is not an exaggeration – I have loved every single minute of it.

I still work as a composer, cellist, conductor, teacher etc. And I love that work, I really do. But writing stories and being in charge of the entire process with absolute creative freedom is something I never want to stop doing.

Part of me still thinks musical theatre is the best blend of all my interests, and I am working with a collaborator on a new musical right now (working with Morgan-Paige Melbourne on a musical titled, Between Fires, funded by the Canada Council for the Arts)! But I have an entire notebook full of story ideas calling to me. So this whole being an author thing… well, I think I’ll keep doing it 🙂

So, How Do You Know You’re a Writer?

I believe we show who we are as children, and it takes growing up to learn how to understand. But at the end of the day, I think you have to ask yourself, “is there a love of storytelling in me?”

If the answer is yes, then you are a writer. It’s up to you decide how that manifests in your life.