Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

I have such a hard time coming up with ideas. Is there something I can do about this, or do I just have to wait for the Muse to appear?

You’re not alone in feeling like inspiration comes from some outside source. Many writers describe inspiration as something sudden or unexpected, arriving under circumstances difficult to discern or trace. Ray Bradbury begins his essay “How to Keep and Feed a Muse” this way:

It isn’t easy. Nobody has ever done it consistently. Those who try hardest, scare it off into the woods. Those who turn their backs and saunter along, whistling softly between their teeth, hear it treading quietly behind them, lured by a carefully acquired disdain.

He goes on to write that it is “sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and textures of people, animals, landscapes, events, large and small” that feed the Muse, known also, he continues, as the subconscious. Indeed this assertion about the material important to creative thought stands on solid foundation. Albert Einstein described what he termed “combinatory play,” in which the mind continually combines and recombines these bits of information, experience, and sensory detail. When one of those bits enters into the combinatory play and organizes or connects other bits, a person may experience that “aha” moment; the Muse has finally arrived.

How is that useful for you? It follows that the more rich material there is rattling around in the mind, the better the environment for inspiration. New bits also heighten the possibility of stumbling onto the detail that allows things to fall into place. So, find ways to nourish the Muse—and that combinatory play—by paying close attention to your experiences, seeking out new experiences, and following your own personal curiosities. Focus on what intrigues you and resonates for you. Digging deeper into those topics or experiences that ignite your interest are bound to create a rich environment in the mind.

This, of course, is not to say that we can fully decode the creative process. There are significant aspects that remain a mystery and likely some that are highly individualized. Still, if you’re hoping for inspiration, you can play a more active role by giving your subconscious more charged and meaningful material with which to work.