How Do Writers Find Inspiration?

By Matthew Gavin Frank

Sometimes my students and I talk about how one of the conditions of being a writer is we innately are not only curious people, but we have the capacity to be surprised. We’re open to surprise almost naturally, like our skin is just a bit more sensitive to the world’s touch. We’re what Kurt Vonnegut called “human beings” — big, rubbery test tubes, seething with chemicals, to paraphrase him.

But sometimes we hit that wall and we feel a little bored, or uninspired.

One of the things that I’ve learned to do as a writer, when I hit that kind of wall, is to manufacture surprise, manufacture inspiration, and not necessarily wait for inspiration to descend from the celestial monochord and fill our literary buckets with some kind of holy ray of inspiration. I tell my students to go out actively looking for it, manufacturing it, and this can happen like picking up a book and reading.

Here are a couple of ways that I do that for myself:

  • I force myself to go on very, very slow walks and — this is going to seem so nerdy — but I take a magnifying glass with me. On my walks, I stop every so often and I just look at things a bit more closely, quite literally through the magnifying glass. I’ll look at ants or leaves or just the dirt and oftentimes I’ll see a pattern there or some kind of movement of the wind in the flora that will shake something loose for me.
  • If I get really desperate, I have a bunch of Audubon bird books and fish books and I’ll look up bird and fish facts. Sometimes bird names or the names of feather parts in these diagrams of the parts of the feather have wonderful names. That will oftentimes shake something loose. Something about fish anatomy will just like shake something loose for me.

I talk to my students about ways in which I like to manufacture inspiration and surprise, and then they start talking about the ways in which they like to manufacture surprise. You have no idea where your creativity is going to come from. You have to go seek it out.

If you’re sitting there in front of the blank screen and you’re waiting for inspiration to come, no. You must go find it. You’ve got to go fill those buckets.

Finding beauty in the ordinary

It’s our job in part as writers and as art makers to look longer and harder at a seemingly mundane thing than anybody else would, and then on the page to examine that seemingly mundane thing through various lenses: historical, social, anatomical, biological and things religious oftentimes. How do various world religions, for instance, engage the ant that I glimpsed through that magnifying glass?

I’m going to scratch and scratch and scratch at the seemingly mundane, the seemingly quotidian until its gooey inner holiness or horror begins to leak out, until it begins to yield its secrets.

In doing so on the page whether it’s in creative nonfiction or via poetry, we oftentimes are taking this thing — it could be an object or it could be a concept — taking this thing that we thought we understood, that we previously mistook for simple and mundane, and it’s our duty as writers to restore that thing to its innate complexity and to learn something about it.

The journey of a writer is never over

I’m always telling my students, when you’re writing about something on the page, even if you’re seeking out meaning in your own experience, I caution against presuming certainty in the poem or the essay because certainty means that something is over.

If you’re presuming certainty, it signifies that you’ve already gone on this journey and now it’s done, and you found the answer. What’s at stake but that active seeking on the page, that questing after these sorts of answers however ephemeral, illusory, and, ultimately, elusive?

It’s that questing after them that kind of allows a reader to go along on this journey with you and quest as well and be part of that conversation. I see writing as an invitation to conversation, oftentimes an urgent and desperate invitation to conversation, rather than just a one-sided monologue.

The Alma College Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing offers the opportunity to enter an artistic community in which you will read deeply, study and hone your writing craft, and participate in energetic discussions that will help you see your poems, stories, essays, and memoirs in the context of current issues and events. Learn more at