Courtney M. McSwain, Writer

Anatomy of a Freelance Writer’s Life: Inspiration Practice

“Inspiration” by photosteve101, Creative Commons

“Stung by the splendor of a sudden thought.”–Robert Browning
“The greatest inspiration is often born of desperation.”–Comer Cotrell
“There can be no forced inspiration.” –Dejan Stojanoviæ

I think inspiration is a conundrum for most writers. There are different schools of thought on whether it can be cultivated or whether writers must wait around for it to come. There is something to be said for unforeseen inspiration, but creative people who live off of their work can’t afford to sit around in waiting. As a freelance writer, I have to stay in a constant state of idea generation, always examining experiences for signs of a story. Part of doing that means opening inspiration channels as a regular practice so that ideas flow naturally and more frequently. I’ve identified at least three things, two that I do regularly and one I’m just starting to implement, that I’ve begun to incorporate into a routine inspiration practice.

  1. Walking. One of the things I truly love about living in a dense, metropolitan area is the opportunity to walk around aimlessly seeing random, interesting things along the way. I recently purchased a new camera, and, in an effort to learn how to use it, I’ve found myself taking more walks and snapping photos of various city scenes. Though I’m not going to win any photography contests any time soon, the act of trying to see and capture things opens up an important inspiration channel: curiosity. My story ideas always start with a question. I might have an inkling that I want to write about some topic, but I won’t really “find the story” until I find the question that needs to be answered. Walking and taking photos allows my curiosity to flourish.
  2. Reading magazines. I didn’t realize until three or four years ago just how amazing magazines are, but now I’m in love with them. For the past four years, I have conducted a little magazine/life review around Christmas, where I buy a handful of lifestyle, art, business and literary magazines to read during my holiday vacation. I typically spend the week between Christmas and New Years with my family, and in those days I go through the magazines, tearing out articles I want to keep and writing down lifestyle tips in a notebook. I realize now that these magazine “retreats” nurtured my belief that writing for a living is tangible. The lives of the world’s greatest novelists feel very remote. But magazine writers somehow seem much closer. They are one of us; trying to organize their lives, get out of debt, understand what gluten is and whether they should live without it. Moreover, magazine writers are not anomalies. There are tons of magazines with tons of words written by tons of writers. I can certainly be one of them. Sitting with a magazine is part of my inspiration practice because it opens up the channel of possibilities.
  3. Goal setting. I don’t recall ever writing out a year’s worth of my own personal goals with action items and due dates. But after reading about writer Chris Guillebeau’sAnnual Review” process, I decided to give it a shot. On his blog The Art of Non-Conformity, Guillebeau is kind enough to offer a template of the spreadsheet he uses in his goal setting process. When I first opened the spreadsheet and saw its multiple columns, I closed it immediately. “I’m not doing all that,” I scoffed. But then, when I thought about my many writing ideas for 2013, I started to fear I was going to lose track of something. Thus, I figured writing it all down might not be a bad idea. I’m still in the midst of the process, but I have to say formalized goal setting is surprisingly calming and exciting—calming in the sense that I don’t have to worry about losing track of something, it’s all in the spreadsheet, and exciting when I look at all that I want to do. If all goes well, the next year is going to be really fun! The best part, and what I didn’t anticipate, is that goal setting opened a third inspiration channel, that might also be called a motivation channel: pressure. By seeing my goals listed out with action steps, I feel a healthy amount of self-pressure to get to work.

Inspiration is complex and different for everyone. The trick, for me, is knowing the things that put me in a creative and motivated state, then doing those things often enough that new ideas never seem that far off.


Do you have your own inspiration practice? I’d love to hear about it!

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