Inconvenient inspiration, and how to seize it before it slips away

writingA few years ago, I was shopping at Trader Joe’s when I saw every parent’s nightmare unfold in front of me. A woman was gathering fruit from the bin while her toddler stood in the large part of the grocery cart. Without warning, the cart tipped and the toddler fell to the ground. The mother immediately swooped up her screaming child, consoling him while shoppers moved around them. Some people stared, and some were completely oblivious to what happened. I placed myself in her shoes, feeling her shame from any judgment over letting her son be in that part of the cart in the first place, and her worry over her son who could have been hurt much worse from the fall. Then the questions began forming in my mind. What if it was much worse? What if her son didn’t survive? As a mother, what would her identity be if her only child passed away?

That scene inspired my book, The Road to Hope, a story about Jill, a mother who loses her son to this very accident. This story also introduced an accidental character—Maddie, a pregnant teen who crosses paths with Jill. I continued the series telling Maddie’s story, infusing pieces of my life into hers, a process that allowed me to grieve and heal from experiences I’d been stuffing.

I pull inspiration for my stories from many different places. Sometimes it’s from something I witness—like the grocery store scene—that leads me to scenarios and characters that grow by just asking myself questions. Sometimes it’s from overhearing a conversation, which prompts me to fill in the gaps. Sometimes it’s inspired by moments from my life that I need to work out in fiction. And sometimes the story comes from a dream.

My first published book, A Symphony of Cicadas, was based on a dream I had while I was planning my wedding. My greatest fear at that time was that something would happen to me before I got to marry the love of my life. Because of this, I had a dream where I died in a car crash. But instead of waking up as soon as I died, the dream continued, showing how all the people I loved were moving on after my death, including my fiancé. I watched as my fiancé met and fell in love with another woman. As I witnessed this, I experienced a small bit of wistfulness. But mostly, I felt this immense rush of peace because he was happy and I knew he was going to be okay. I woke up crying, and the whole book began flowing through me. I couldn’t outline it fast enough.

This kind of dream inspiration happened again with Numbered, the book I’m currently writing. At the time, I was at a crossroads in my writing life, wondering if I had any more books in me. But then I had this dream. All I saw was a man’s face, but I knew his whole story. He was dying from cancer, despite looking completely healthy, and he knew the exact date of his death. I woke up with a question—what if everyone actually knew the date they would die? How would that affect the way they live? The story began flowing through me and I ran downstairs to get it down before I lost it, spending two hours outlining the novel, and describing the characters and their backgrounds.

Inspiration can some from anywhere, you just have to pay attention and be ready to receive it when it comes calling. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott shares how she carries index cards everywhere, ready to write down conversations, moments, anything that comes to her while she’s out and about because inspiration rarely comes when it’s convenient. Nowadays, you don’t even need index cards if you have a smartphone, because it’s just as easy to jot it down in your phone’s notes or even record it as a voice memo. Inspiration likes to hit me while I’m driving, which is an awful time for it to arrive. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve lost because I didn’t pull over immediately and get it down. By the time I reach a convenient moment, all or most of the story has already gone.

One of my favorite stories about the way inspiration works is how Liz Gilbert shared in her Ted talk about the late American poet, Ruth Stone, and how a poem would come barreling at her over the landscape. Ruth Stone’s job at that point was to drop everything and race for a pencil because if she didn’t, the poem would flow in and then out of her, searching for another poet who was ready to receive it. Watch it below (it’s less than 2 minutes long).

Have you ever had a moment when inspiration struck you when you least expected it? What did you do to make sure you didn’t lose it?


How Trader Joe’s helped me write my latest novel

Trader Joe's to Send Part-Timers to Obama Health Exchanges

About three years ago, I was in grocery shopping in a Trader Joe’s when an accident unfolded in the middle of the store. A woman was pushing her toddler in the cart, and he was sitting in the wrong part. The cart pitched forward, and the toddler fell on the ground and became hysterical. The woman dropped everything and came to him, scooping him up and rocking him right there in the middle of the produce.

I couldn’t help but absorb what she was going through – the fear that her child was hurt, the guilt that he hadn’t been sitting properly, the embarrassment of being at the center of attention, the feelings of being judged or ridiculed for her parenting skills…

And so opens the beginning of my very next book.

That year (2011), it was that very scene that planted the stage for my NaNoWriMo novel. I played a “What if” game in my mind.

What if this woman came home, and had to face her husband about the mysterious lump on his forehead?

What if the effect of the fall had terrible consequences for the kid?

What would happen to the family after that?

I began the story this way, addressing these “What ifs” with the story of Jill, a woman who loses her son after he hits his head on the slick linoleum of the grocery store. But as I wrote fast (remember, it’s NaNoWriMo – 50K words in 30 days!), another “What if” happened.

What if, as the woman ventures out in the world following the tragedy, something bad happens again?

Enter Maddie, a 16-year-old girl who is pregnant, homeless, and needs a little cash to survive. She finds this by trying to steal Jill’s wallet, setting off a whole new direction of dilemmas and consequences that unfold in a dual story of both mothers’ lives.

I finished that book at just over 50,000 words, and then set it aside to edit later. “Later” turned into years, though the story has haunted me for just as long. So a few months ago, I set aside all my other writing projects (including a book I was in the middle of writing) and picked this book back up to polish and prepare for publication.

To give this still-to-be-named book a fresh start, I retyped the whole thing. As I typed, I added in a few parts, took out a lot more parts, and did my best to make the story a little more 3-dimensional. The process gave me about 20,000 more words to the manuscript (though really it’s more, since I took out a ton of stuff!). And yesterday, I was able to wrap a bow on the rough draft of the book, typing out the words THE END.

Those are some beautiful words, right?

Now comes the fun part – editing. Yeah, I kind of already edited as I went along. But it felt more like writing than editing. So for the next few weeks I’ll be going through it chapter by chapter, smoothing out the edges and preparing it for all of you.

And eventually I’ll even have a book title to share! (<—-Why is that always harder than writing the book itself???)

For now, here’s the rough synopsis of the book you can look forward to reading by the end of this year:

Two mothers. Two different roads in life. Two unimaginable events. This is Jill and Maddie’s story about how life’s twists and turns had an impact on their identity, their future, and the lives they unexpectedly touch in between.

P.S. I have found a name for this novel! The Road to Hope. And it will be released sometime this fall. For a sneak peek at an excerpt from Chapter 1, click here.

Prompts to chase away writer’s block

by Autumn’s Child*
Words fly through my mind, in my eyes and out my ears,
Through my pores and rest on my lips.
As I walk through grocery stores they dance on melons.
Sitting by a fountain they gurgle with the falling water.
Adjectives and pronouns flutter in the whirring of the wings of bees.
A baby puts the words that were clinging to her rattle into her curious mouth.
A dog runs and jumps, catching the words that fly through the air.
And I pluck the words one by one from the literary tree growing in front of me,
Placing them in the growing tablet of my mind.
But as soon as I put the pen in my hand to the notebook in my lap,
Words scatter and vanish to secret hiding places
That even I cannot find.

* a poem I wrote in 2008

You finally get the time to sit down, uninterrupted, alone in a room with just you and your computer. You may have brought all your best ideas, or you may have come open-minded waiting for inspiration to hit. But as soon as your fingers hit the keyboard….it’s all gone. The words you’ve been mulling around have scattered into the wind. And you’re left grabbing at anything within reach as all usable ideas vanish from your sight.

Welcome to the huge boulder of writer’s block.

A few weeks ago, I attended an inspirational workshop on writing with Cheryl Strayed. While there, she led us through a series of writing prompts to get our creative juices flowing. We wrote about a time when something was over, or more specifically, when we KNEW it was over. We wrote about a time when we changed our mind about something we were once certain of, when we did something we never thought we’d do. We thought about the common theme in our writing, what one thing kept popping up that was screaming to be faced head on. And we wrote about a time we went “too far.”

When the project you’re working on just isn’t flowing the way you want it to, you may need to step away from it for a moment. But don’t just stop writing. Writing prompts are an excellent way to get your mind unblocked and encourage creativity once again.

Here are a few prompts to get you on your way:

– The moment in your childhood when you realized everything was NOT okay.

– A superpower you’d love to have, and what would happen if you had it.

– The moment when everything changed.

– Your favorite childhood toy. Bonus – make it come to life.

– Make a story out of the lyrics to a song.

– Go outside and people watch. Find the most interesting person within view. Write their story.

– What is something you’re struggling with? What if you had a magic object that could help you overcome it? Write about that.

– You’ve just won a million dollars. What happens next?

– Make up a conversation between you and your favorite author/hero/person.

– A time when your heart was broken.

– What it feels like to be lied to.

– Something about yourself you’ve never told anyone.

Here are a few other places to look for writing prompts that I found while trying to overcome my own writer’s block:

Cheryl Strayed shares her Writing Prompts

Writing Prompts 101

Writing Prompts Tumblr

50 Tips to Battle Writer’s Block

Have a surefire writing prompt? Share with the rest of us by leaving it in the comments!

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