I went looking for inspiration recently—at the opera and the museum. The opera was La Bohème—as a writer, I’m partial to stories with scenes in garrets—and the museum was the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which featured, in its 75th Anniversary Show, works by the well-known (Matisse, Pollack), the lesser-known (Shows, McGee), and the unknown (an assemblage of a thousand photos of the sun posted on Flickr, wax impressions of the knees of five famous artists).
Some artists, including writers, think of inspiration as a divine influence, a bolt from the blue that bypasses their faculties and propels them to create spontaneously. Some even wait around for this sort of inspiration to strike, and they produce no work (not even rough drafts or preliminary sketches) until they’re inspired.
I don’t think of inspiration this way. Ideas don’t come because the Muse whispers into the artist’s passive ear. They come because the artist has prepared her brain to generate them, sometimes without realizing it.
A productive writer has probably trained herself to think in a certain way—to observe, to notice her observations, and to organize them into plots and characters and settings that are as fresh and compelling as her observations were. She has trained herself to extract from her experiences ideas she can use to create fiction. Divine inspiration happens only when the writer has prepared her mind to receive it.
Some writers don’t go into the world hunting for the raw material; their inspiration is fueled from what’s nearby or within. Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen were inspired to create stories and poems built out of their immediate experiences. No museums or operas for them, and they didn’t need them. Poe didn’t actually suffer through pits and pendulums and beating dead hearts. His inspiration came from his deep psychology.
I’m not in their company. I look at the world around me and hunt avidly for experiences that make my brain thrum and my fingertips tingle. When that happens, I can hardly get to the keyboard fast enough.
At the opera, I came up empty. I loved the excellent singing, expressive music, and scintillating company, but I didn’t get any fuel for my inspiration. At the art museum, however, I saw a painting that made my neurons fire. I begged a pen and a handful of napkins from the café and scribbled out ideas that I’ve turned into an outline for a story. It’s about a stolen painting, a murder, and a clue that’s in plain sight but abstract and obscure to most people.
In this case, the inspiration was logical and direct—the setting, characters, and plotline came straight from my visit to the museum. It doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes a painting—or a football game or a plane flight—will affect me in a completely unpredictable and mysterious way, and I’ll end up writing about something else entirely. No one would ever be able to discern the source of my inspiration; sometimes even I wouldn’t know.
The unpredictability of when and how inspiration strikes is part of what makes writing so enjoyable to me. I have tickets to the symphony and a hockey game next week. I may come back with an idea for a tale about a violinist on skates—or something else entirely.
Lee Child has asked me to contribute a story to the 2012 Mystery Writers of America anthology, Dark Justice, that he is editing. The topic is vigilantism. As a trial lawyer, I could only try to obtain justice within the court system. It will be fun to explore serving just desserts extra-judicially.