• Writing Wisdom: From Inspiration to Idea

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Inspiration     Comments 10 comments

    light-147810_960_720Today we’re going to take the (sometimes quick, sometimes tortuous) journey from general inspiration to specific idea.

    Last week we explored how some of the writers I’ve interviewed find their inspiration: Lou Gallo in his own mortality; Heidi Durrow in a relentless drive to publish; Steve Almond taps feelings of shame; George Saunders’ life changed with one Stuart Dybek short story.

    All great stuff. But once inspiration strikes, what happens next? How do you go from wanting to write — feeling inspired — to knowing what to write?

    Today we’re going to hear from three writers about where their ideas come from.

    Short answer? Fairy tales, newspapers, and … Dolly Parton?

    (As I wrote this post, I began to notice a pattern — each writer mentions, in one way or another, deceased children. Hey, don’t look at me! A mere coincidence.)


    Songs About Dead Babies

    Stephen Powers is among the most unique people I’ll ever know.

    The reasons I say this would cover an entire blog post, however, and you guys have asked me to keep these posts short! So I’ll just say that he’s the kind of person who might, for example, publish two collections of Dolly Parton-themed and –inspired poetry.

    Seems natural that I would ask him: Why Dolly?

    “My childhood wasn’t terribly exciting because I lived in the Midwest and went to Catholic school,” Powers said. “Dolly Parton … took me to more exciting places. She was different and she knew it. She was proud of it. And that gave me a much-needed dose of self-confidence.

    “I was drawn to Dolly the flamboyant and glittery pop star, of course, but I was mostly drawn to how dark and creepy she also is, especially in her early songwriting. When you get past the bubble gum pop, and really dive into her songwriting, you find songs about dead babies, threesomes, and heartbroken women locked up in mental institutions.

    “That’s the kind of stuff I was thinking about in Catholic school, only I couldn’t tell anyone about it.

    “She shows that a good person can write dark things and it’s okay. It doesn’t mean she’s a dark, unhappy person — it just means she has a big imagination. I had the opposite experience in school. If I wrote anything dark, it meant a meeting with the principal or a phone call home, and so I stopped. I’ve always felt that was a great disservice to my creativity.

    “There’s imagination, but that imagination has to start somewhere, and it starts with the writer’s experience, memories, thoughts, and feelings. ‘Dolly’ is simply something I love, and I believe writers should write what they love.”

    YOUR TURN: Do you write what you love? Why or why not? Share your answer in the comments below, and don’t forget to tick “notify” to follow the conversation.


    Witches Eating Children

    I talked to Molly Gaudry shortly after the appearance of her 2010 novella, We Take Me Apart, which was described as “evok[ing] the spirit of iconic fairy tales”; “infused with fairy tales”; and “a cross between silence and fairy tale.”

    So where do you suppose Gaudry turns to for many of her ideas?

    “There is some sort of satisfaction [with fairy tales] in having suspended so much disbelief throughout that, by the end, we’re ready to believe in happiness,” she said. “By suspension of disbelief, I’m recalling Hansel and Gretel, whose parents abandon them to starve to death in a forest where a witch who eats children lives and lures them in with a spell that turns her house to candy; or Cinderella, who wears shoes of glass and travels in a pumpkin-turned-stagecoach; and the list goes on.

    “I feel these tales are so familiar to us that we can easily forget the magic — both the magic taking place in the stories and the magic of reading (or hearing) and believing these things could happen.

    “Remember, too, that many fairy tales begin with so much attention to poverty, injustice, death, oppression. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with our wanting, on allegorical levels, good to overcome evil, or for justice to be served. The happy ending seems the heroine’s due, her reward, and sometimes just as magical as the spells and transformations.

    “As a writer, I’m most interested in retellings of familiar tales, particularly when those tales are subverted. Perhaps even more simply, I love drama. And it seems to me that the moment of ‘happily ever after’ is actually less an ending than it is a beginning. It is where the story really just gets interesting. The rest of their lives! I mean: What happens next?”

    YOUR TURN: They say (“they”) that there are no new stories, only new ways of, as Molly puts it, retelling familiar tales. True or false?


    More Dead Babies

    Hey look, our first two-timer! Heidi Durrow made it into last week’s post about inspiration, and now I want to share with you how that inspiration took shape and why.

    Her novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, comes from a true story about a mother who jumped off of a building while holding her children — one of whom survived the fall. It’s something Durrow found in a newspaper:

    “When I read the newspaper story about the family that died in an accident and the girl survived, I really became obsessed with the story,” she said. “Obviously by what happened (how could we live in a world in which that would happen?), but I was also obsessed because even though I couldn’t explain it, I felt like the story had something to do with my own life.

    “I am big on reading the real news for stories. I think it’s because I’m very interested in how the questions we ask shape the story we tell. I see blank spaces in lots of news stories because the most interesting question hasn’t been asked.

    “I started writing really trying to figure out how much of the real girl was the real me. I already knew that I wanted to write about some of the issues of my own life — the idea of being ‘raced’ and being American; the relationship between mothers and daughters — but my life is not so interesting and I wasn’t about to try memoir.

    “The newspaper story — the real girl — gave me an opening and a purpose. I had a reason to write a story about those issues because suddenly I needed to give the real girl a future and a voice.

    “When something bad happens to you, you need someone, a witness, to say yes, that was a bad thing. You need the validation of your hurt.”

    YOUR TURN: Do you ever take story ideas from newspaper articles? What’s the strangest place you have ever found a story idea?



    David LinkedFULLWriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is copy editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and contributes to the Dallas Morning News, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2016 writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coaching, private instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”


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    Tom W.

    Small point, but since you HAVE been asking for advice lately (which is neat, by the way….. :)) I’d say maybe you can collect all of each post’s questions at the bottom so we don’t have to scroll back and forth and lose our place. That’s a pretty whiney complaint. YOUR TURN: Do you write what you love? Why or why not? Nope! At least with fiction I try to branch out and write about things I don’t know about. Opposite of Twain “Write what you now.” I try to use writing as a method of discovery. With journalism/essay, I… Read more »

    Dot Day

    Family history-written with my opinions and evaluations, but based mostly on others’ memories. A novella–written in response to the story of a former student. Historical fiction–researched and researched from the family history with the story laid out beginning to end. Descriptions of characters and places done, but am hung up on the beginning of the story, but I keep experimenting–editing too much as I go, retired English teacher who lives in my head and my body. A couple of small-content journals to create passive income. i say this all with a tongue in chocolate, because I am not sureI am… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    Yes, I write what I love. I love excitement, mystery and romance and I have found most of my books tend to the romantic suspense. I also love fairy tales so I wrote a modern fairy tale with shamans, durids and a lot of magic in the fight against evil. If you don’t like what you are writing, why are you doing it? It’s like doing a job you hate. It shows in the way you do the job. There really is nothing “new” in the universe, just different ways of putting it together. Some things are similar, others are… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    Just so you know, I read all sorts of books. Dean Kuntz, Steven King, Nora Roberts/JD Robb, Michener, Terry Goodkind, Hemmingway, Eva Ball (part of my research on the Apache), Zane Grey, Daphne du Maurier, Jules Verne, Charles Dickens, Ron L Hubbard (his sci-fi), Ted Dekker, Diana Love/Sherrilyn Kenyon, Diana Gabaldon (had to see what all the hoopla was about in her Outlander series), Aleka Nakis (I have helped to proof and beta read her books which are erotica), James Patterson, John Grisham, Sir Author Conana Doyle, plus multiple others. As you can see, it is varied. I left out… Read more »


    Always write what you love, or whatever passion you’re currently pursuing. Always! Otherwise what is the point?

    […] including such folks as George Saunders, Heidi Durrow and Steve Almond. Last week they talked about where their ideas come from, and two weeks ago they discussed where they find […]

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