A Box Full of Inspiration

The Kit"You can only learn to be a better writer by actually writing."

That is Doris Lessing expressing the rock-bottom truth about writing. Read any book about writing, enroll in any writing course, browse any 'how to write' web site and you will find the equivalent. The exact phrasing will vary, but the meaning never does.

So most writers resolve to write every single day. Often this is easy. Other times it can seem as if your muse has vanished into a witness protection program. However if you are willing to invest a little time now and then, you can create a priceless treasure: a bottomless well of personalized inspiration to draw on whenever your mind is as blank as your paper.

There are websites that will e-mail you a daily writing 'spark' and others you can visit that offer lists of sparks or will offer you a random selection. But all these require the use of a computer. If, like me, you have embraced the simplicity of writing with pen and ink, turning to a computer for your inspiration can seem disruptive or just plain wrong. Also those prompts are intended to be universally applicable, which means they have to be generic. Why settle for off the rack, when you can have custom-made?

The biggest failing, though, is that those sparks are all expressed in words. Now, I love words -- what writer doesn’t? -- but the trouble with written prompts is that they can be too exact in meaning. Pictures, even precisely detailed photographs, retain ambiguity and allow your imagination freer rein. Compare two prompts: a picture of a pensive sailor leaning against the railing of a ship or the words “Write about a sailor who is missing his home.” What will the first lead to? Maybe you will see a homesick sailor and write about that, but maybe you will see a sailor contemplating joining the mutiny his comrades have been discussing. A written prompt can seem a strait-jacket by comparison.

Creating your "Inspiration Box"

Your ‘Inspiration Box’ is simply a collection of images that you can pick from when inspiration is needed. The picture above shows my entire ‘kit’ and is pretty much self-explanatory: I cut out the image, paste it to an index card, and stick it into a card file. However there are a few things I’ve learned while using mine, so maybe I can save you from some wasted time.

Images The trick is to collect images that 'caught your attention.' If an image made you look at it for a few seconds, if something about it intrigued you, that is an image worth keeping. No matter if it didn’t cause an idea to leap into your mind full-blown; that sensation like a little tickle deep in your brain? That is your subconscious perking up its ears. Don’t spend time mulling over the image right away. It has potential and that is all that matters.

The source of your images can be anything visual. Most of mine have come from magazines, newspapers, and other publications, but you could create your own by drawing/painting/photographing landscapes or people or objects or buildings or anything else. Somewhat surprisingly, I’ve found advertisements the most fertile source, while ‘art’ images are often too complete in themselves for my taste. I collect lots of images of people, but I avoid celebrities and actors and such: I want to have my mind ‘see’ the picture as an old woman, or a cop, or a bride rather than ‘Brooke Shields’ or ‘Tom Cruise.’

Backings I use unlined 3 X 5 index cards, but any size that suits you would work fine. Some of my image cards are colored, but this means nothing more than that I had some colored cards hanging around when I made them. A more organized person might put colors to use. For example, images of people could go on pink cards, landscapes on green, objects on white and so forth. Personally I like the pure randomness of not knowing what I will get.

‘Frame’ Take a piece of thin cardboard and cut an opening the exact size of whatever you paste your images on. Images smaller than the backings are easy to use, and sometimes you are only interested in a particular smaller part of a large image and can simply cut that part out, but large ‘overall’ images can be a problem. Slide the frame around on the picture to find what part of it (if any) will both fit on a card and carry the impact you want. Once you are happy, trace around the frame to show where to cut. I use a black pen for most images, but a light yellow pencil shows better when the picture is really dark.

Glue Hunt down Pritt gluesticks. Yes, they’re harder to find and yes, they cost a bit more. Do it anyway. (No, I don’t own stock in the company.) The Pritt glue goes on smoothly and holds forever while with the cheapies you will have to deal with bumps from thick blobs of glue coming off the stick and the images will sometimes peel off the instant you happen to bend a card.

Box I use an old wooden recipe file box but, again, any storage method that will keep your image collection safe and allow you to easily make a random selection is fine. A shoe box? A manila envelope? A couple of rubber bands?

How to use your Inspiration Box

Happy Birthday BalloonAgain, the basic method is very simple: draw a random card, and write whatever it makes you think about Note that: whatever it makes you think about, which may not end up having a relationship to the image that would be obvious to anyone else. For example, when I drew this picture of a birthday party balloon it called to mind my birthday parties (duh) but that reminded me of how my grandmother always baked me a special cake on my ‘anti-Birthday’ six months later and that reminded me of how rabid a bingo player she was and that reminded me of what happened the one time she took me along to her bingo game. And thus the written entry is about the first time I made out with a boy. Really cute guy, the choir master’s son....

What I write varies. As in the ‘balloon’ entry, some are autobiographical incidents. Some entries are the rambling sort of musing that typifies journals. Some entries are emotional outbursts. Some entries are fiction scenes. Yes, all mixed in together in the same books. The books are for me, and I know which is which. If I ever become so famous someone wants to write my life story, and my biographer fails to strain out the fiction, well... It will certainly make for a much more interesting book.

My system has become a bit more elaborate because I like to be able to look back over what I’ve written. First I number each of my cards on the back. I use bound blank books for my daily ‘writing exercise.’ (Incidentally, you can buy these really cheap on eBay, if you aren’t particular about the covers.) Each day’s entry is dated, of course. Sometimes I have a subject in mind and simply write. Otherwise I open my Inspiration Box and draw a random card. I write the card’s number next to the date and write the date on the back of the card. This allows me to 1) find the card that inspired me no matter how much time elapses before I reread the entry and 2) by using the dates on the back of the card, I can read all the entries a particular card has inspired.

Piggy Bank

Yes, cards go back in the box after they’ve been used. This little pink piggy bank has so far led to entries about

  • saving for retirement, and how hard it is for me to think about the subject since retirement = old age = death.

  • my brownie troop making piggy banks out of clorox bleach bottles for a craft fair.

  • how I felt the time our house was burgled (among the items stolen was the jug we saved our change in for vacation spending money)

  • spending my 'savings' for an Etch-a-sketch against my parents' instructions, and what that lead to.

Multi-card technique for fiction writers

For brief daily writing exercises, drawing a single card works well. But on Saturdays I draw three cards, think up a story to fit them, and then write out at least the most telling scene from that story. Below is a shot of the cards I drew last Saturday morning. To me they suggested a Romeo and Juliet love story between a poor man and the daughter of a wealthy and indulgent rich man.

What do you think their story is?

3 cards

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An article full of inspiration


Never mind the box, your article is a source of inspiration in itself. Thanks for sharing your methods. There's an awful lot in this article to think about!
Neal | http://porkpop.blogspot.com/


If you come up with personal twists on this idea, or any other ways to avoid Writer's Block, I'd love to hear about them.

Very good article, lots of

Very good article, lots of ideas. I can even see this idea being applied to the box of photos many have around their home. The personal photo idea probably wouldn't work well for fiction writing but it would be a good way to connect journals to photos and vice versa.

With work it's best to just start.

The Story

The story I see in the 3 cards is set in the past where a conservative religious man hides his misunderstood son under lock and key in shame until a cat with a trapped spirit visits the son unleashing a chain of events where father and son re-evaluate their relationship.
Oh well, worth a try. ^0^. This exercise was great!

from box to notebook

I've been doing this without realizing it. I have a notebook full of images that I've collected from here, there, and everywhere that I use as inspiration for paintings and drawings. It never occurred to me to use them as writing prompts! What a cool idea!

If I may distill your

If I may distill your opening comments into one of my favorite quotes: "Writers write."

Excellent article. Thanks!