You Must Feed The Owlets Of Inspiration

I can’t stop watching this goddamn owl.

Er, not that owl.

This owl.

Yesterday on the Twittertubes, Fred Hicks said something about an owl with its owl-babies, and I was like, “Wuzza? Owl? Aroo? The fuck?” and then I made with the clicky-clicky and — whammo! The Owl Box. Which, at last check, was being visited by 16,000 viewers at that moment. All checking out a barn owl and its barn owlets.

Cute. Strange. Compelling.

Only half the point, though.

Point is, I sat there watching this owl (I seriously lost an immediate 15 minute period the first time I opened it — no fireworks, no transforming robots, no celebrity porn, just an owl and its freshly-hatched baby nestlings in a wooden box, and there I am glued to the screen as she feeds them rabbity bits and micey bits and they screech and she chirrups), and I’m thinking, “Hot damn, I’d love to include an owl in a book.”

And next thing I know I start thinking back to when I was a wee tot and how everything in the world scared the Pee Diddy right outta me — seriously, I’d see shadows outside and see a witch’s hands, I’d hear crickets and wonder if they were going to eat me, I’d look to the door of my bedroom and imagine that a serial killer was going to chop me into little bits. (No idea why at that age I had any idea what a serial killer was, but — hey! I did. Too bad.) Except, one thing comforted me: a hoot owl nestled in the knot of a tree sitting directly across from my bedroom window. The owl would poke his head out, and all you could see was his face, even at night, and he’d just… fucking hoot. Probably annoying, but I loved it. I don’t know why. My child brain invented this protective quality to owls in general, and to this one in particular. Nothing could hurt me as long as the owl was present. And that owl was present for years. Seriously. It was like being guarded over by a vigilant totem spirit.

Did you know that some owls can live for 50 years or more? Truth.

Also, the barn owl is something referred to as a “ghost owl” or a “demon owl.”

At this point, you’re probably asking yourself, “What the fuck is this guy talking about? I hoped he’d be talking about inspiration, and yet here we are getting all moist over owls. Did I miss something?”

You did. But that’s not your fault.

I follow a link, I see an owl, and suddenly my mind is bursting with ideas.

That’s inspiration. It’s an important tool in the writer’s kit. So let’s talk about it.

You May Think Me A Grumpy Hardass…

…prooooobably because I am. I shake my fist at words like “muse” and “inspiration” because those things are often used as excuses. You can Wait For Godot all you want, but that fucker isn’t going to show up, and he damn sure isn’t coming with a box of donuts and the motivation to work on your latest project (but you will be left with the rope you can use to hang yourself). Not only are these elements an excuse to keep you from working on your latest manuscript, but they’re also the excuses that writers use to hop from one manuscript to another.

This is stuff I’ve talked about again and again.

And so, it likely seems I am anti-muse and angry at inspiration.

At SimCon, during my “writing for the game industry” talk, someone asked me about what inspires me, what about my muse, etc.

I remain anti-muse. The muse is a paper succubus; she’s just a ghost. You rely on something so arty and ephemeral as a muse, and you might as well try to subsist on handfuls of dirt while pretending they’re life-giving cupcakes.

Inspiration, though? That I believe in. I’m not anti-inspiration. That’s like being anti-puppy or getting angry at ice cream.

What’s my deal, then?

The Stink Of Your Own Slothfulness

The problem is, writers often wait for inspiration.

They rely on it.

Which is the same thing as waiting for someone to come change your diaper. Sure, it’d be nice if someone would do that for you. But you’re asking a lot of the world, aren’t you? Your pants are heavy with your own waste. Change them. Be proactive.

Waiting for inspiration is a “best case scenario,” and it is unwise to rely on best case scenarios. It’s setting a condition that is unlikely to occur.

Further, if you accept inspiration as a force outside yourself, you are subject to its whims. To go back to the stenchworthy metaphor, if you wait around for someone to come change your diaper, you are now subject to that person’s diaper-changing technique. It might be a big sweaty guy with rough, callused hands. Maybe he just ate a hoagie, and now he stinks of vinegar and garlic. Maybe he’ll take off the dirty diaper but he replaces it with, say, a burlap sack, or a live badger. Waiting for someone to perform that task for you, you are now given over to external forces.

Same goes with inspiration. You give yourself to it, and inspiration becomes your master.

You become its bitch.

Be A Clever Monkey — Own Your Inspiration

Change your perspective.

Move inspiration from being an external force to an internal one.

Get grabby with it. Hands-on. Molest your inspiration into the shape you desire and demand.

That’s not really helpful, is it? Too abstract? Oblique? Obtuse?

Let’s say you go to the eye doctor. He does that thing where he slams the giant steampunk eye machine up to your face and he flips lens after lens to help you determine the best clarity: “This one? Or this one? This one? Or this one? Clear? Not clear? Read the chart. This one? Or this one?” And on and on.

You need to be open to inspiration.

But you also need to measure that inspiration against everything else. You need to go through that eye doctor bullshit where you hold the inspiration up against your current work and say, “This one? Or this one? Does this fit? Does this not fit? Does this help me read the fucking chart, or is everything blurry?”

See, because what happens is, we step into the stream sometimes and we’re washed away by it. You can’t be washed away. You must stand firm.

You must control the flow.

You must measure it.

You must examine the inspiration and say, “Is this bauble useful to me? Can I incorporate it?” Because if you can’t? Fuck it. Throw it in a drawer for later. You’ll find use for it. Write a note. Make a journal entry. Pop it into Evernote or Dropbox or as a margin scrawl in your favorite notebook.

Be awash in the magic and mystery of inspiration, but then drag that magical fairy back to the world in which you live and hold her feet to the irons.

That little twat works for you. You don’t work for her.

Advanced Technique: Happy Inspiration Ninja!

The world is like a giant Magic Eye painting. You adjust your perception just right, and suddenly the image comes into view — it’s Rambo riding a dolphin! It’s a unicorn on a surfboard! It’s Dogs Playing D&D! (Please, someone paint that for me. I’ll pay you. I mean, not a  lot. But it’ll be money in some culture. You like wampum, right? Beads and shells, bitches. Yeah.)

You can adjust your perceptions and train your brain so that the inspiration you receive is closer to the inspiration you need.

No, really.

It’s some crazy Zen shit, but it works.

Your subconscious mind is all yours. So force it to dance. Shoot at its feet. Ring a bell every time you put out food and watch that sumbitch drool.

If you have a WIP (work-in-progress) that’s… erm, in-progress, then when you’re done your writing for the day, literally ask yourself questions about it. Or, just think real hard about your manuscript. Noodle that shit. Get it all up in there. And then walk away. And stop thinking about it.

You’ll find that the inspiration that reaches your brain and triggers that “oh, holy shit!” response is likelier to fit into the weave and weft of your WIP rather than serving as a distraction to another project.

Me, I’ve got this new WIP I’m noodling, a YA-thingy that has this young love slash bad romance slash sci-fi slash ancient gods slash occult weirdness broth going on, and so I’m on the lookout for new ingredients to go into the soup. In my old notes regarding this work, I clearly have a thing for birds, except, I didn’t feel the notes were quite in-line with what I needed yet.

What comes along?

Owl Box.

I didn’t realize it when I was looking at it, but as soon as my brain started running toward it, babbling and jabbering, I knew. I had something. Something I could use. I was inspired, but I was inspired in the right direction, in a way that remains currently useful. It’s like I trained my brain to go get me coffee, and it did.

I’m not saying to turn yourself off to all other inspirado. I still see things all around me that ping my radar in ways that are not immediately useful, and so I try not to get excited and I calmly place those Very Cool Things into a secondary place for later where they can serve my needs. I means I don’t have to rely on it, but when it happens, it’s distinctly in the category of “value-added.” But what I find is, if I program my brain properly, it returns far more often with actionable elements for the WIP.

That’s pretty awesome, you ask me.

You might even call it –

(wait for it)

(wait for it)



  • Words. Interesting words are quite inspiring. Flicking through an extended dictionary can be fascinating, as can be clicking “Random” on Wikipedia. Fascinating and time-eating. For someone with procrastination issues, such proactive searching for inspiration may not be the best plan.

    I am usually struck with the purer, internal muse when I am either in the shower or just falling asleep, both times when I am unlikely to record the ideas.

    I usually decide that, if I can still remember the idea a couple of days later, it’s worth writing down. That is insanity of the highest order, this close to 40. I am forgetting ideas, not because they are shite, but because my brain is shite.

    But yes, I agree that one must be open to inspiration. Just as one must be open to offers of taking part in a celebrity threesome, or stealing a fast car. Or threesomes In fast cars.

    • @Stephen —

      I’m not necessarily suggesting that you go hunting for random inspiration — that’s the scenario you posit, right? Just wandering aimlessly onto the Internet, hoping for… something to click? I’m talking targeted deployment of your inspiration-hunting skills. I’m talking about a merciless attack on your inspiration centers.

      Procrastination is a signal that you’re not in control.

      It’s a passive condition. It’s not an active agent.

      Don’t just look for Anything. Look for The Thing. The missing piece. And if you don’t have a missing piece, don’t go looking at all.

      My two cents, of course.

      — c.

  • Hmm. There is the aimless wandering, and sometimes there’s the more proactive kind. For example, I’m trying to find some interesting words or terms for my next RPG project. I will look up words for “Distance” and then explore out along other things related to that term, just to see what I’ll find. Just the other day I found the word “ambit” on my travels. It means “boundary” and it’s been added to my Evernote “interesting word” records.

    So it’s less random sometimes, more directed. And the journey is the thing, because on the way, you never know what else might pop up to be taken and tucked away in the Idea Bag.

    Those are the best kind of hunting expeditions.

    • Oh, then I definitely support that. That stuff is awesome. And fun. You, of course, have to know when to stop — you eventually cross a threshold where signal becomes noise. But that kind of hunting expedition is great; it forces you to move forward rather than sit in your omphalos waiting for the divine epiphany. Good stuff, Stephen.

      — c.

  • Why does this topic seem familiar?

    (Opens up “to blog” list.)

    Ah, there it is. Third from the top. “Inspiration for the professional creative.” Looks like I’ll be offering my own thoughts on this Soon(tm).

  • The Webbian Thoughtmeats. Now that needs to be boss encounter in an MMO. For reals.

    I love this post on so many levels, and not just because I have a hooter fetish. I’m right there with you on seeking out inspiration. I don’t like the idea of stuff falling into my lap, it feels like I own it a little less.

  • I had a similar experience yesterday. I had a vague idea of writing a story in which the things that schizophrenics think are real. What would happen to a sane person do if faced with that terrifying reality? So I read up a bit on schizophrenia, linked over to a diary of schizophrenic guy. puzzled about a bit. Nothing gelled. Then I went to lunch. Got in the elevator in my office building to run off to my regular lunch place. I was two floors down when it hit me. Monsters in the elevator!

  • Well, this post inspired me to comment!

    Working without inspiration always struck me as the “God Helps Those Who Help Themselves” attitude of writing. Regardless of any synaptic wonder, words must hit page for anything to happen. And thus, once they begin to accumulate, inspiration greases the brain wheels, jerks the wheel of the thought-cart, or opens the floodgates of cognition.

    But, words must hit page first. God never struck me as disinterested or lazy in terms of helping a brother out, only that He didn’t want you to just sit on your butt and wait for him to do all the work. Inspiration is similar, to me. I can sit on the couch and be inspired all I want, but if my fingers aren’t at the keys, it’s a little less important.

    That said, if you’re at the keys and nothing is happening, then go take a walk, pet a dog, go grocery shopping, but come back to the keys, not the wishing well.


  • For as anti-whimsy as I am, I won’t commit to the notion that inspiration pre-words is a bad thing, or that inspiration that “falls into your lap” isn’t inspiration you own. It is. It’s all your subconscious, it’s all about your own mind showing you things — the world can’t force inspiration upon you.

    The point is to know what to do with it, how to manage it, and how to encourage it to happen in the way you want it to happen.

    — c.



      @Lugh —

      Alice? No. Not planning on it, at least not until DVD. I’m kind of soured on Burton these days.

      And that painting, I really want it. You get dogs, and you put them in geeky t-shirts, and they’re drinking Mountain Dew, and they’re throwing 20-siders around. C’mon. Dogs Playing D&D. It’d be a seller, boy.

      — c.

  • #1. I took the wee ones to see Alice and I really liked it. Johnny Depp was of course amazing as always, and I thought it was a great new adaptation. My favorite version before this one was Alice Through the Looking Glass. At least I think that’s what it was called. I saw it when I was a kid and all I remember was the Jabowocky/Dragon thingy coming at her through the mirror in the end and she had to defeat it somehow. I wonder if that version still exists somewhere. *pondering* huh.

    #2. If you get a painting of the dogs playing D&D, then I get a freaking photoshop of a freaking WEAPONIZED GHOST CHILI! You might as well just make it, Chuck. I’m not gonna let it go. I’ll keep requesting it till you have nightmares about the goddamned imminent Culinary Warfare that will soon plague our world…..Just sayin’.

    #3. Before I decided to actually start writing “seriously” I’d always poo-pooed my random thoughts of inspirations as just my crazy ADD mind taking off on me again. I’d enjoy the crazy train of thought in my head, say to myself, “that’d be awesome” and then dismiss it, never to be heard from again.

    Then I started writing my book, which is the first of a trilogy, so I knew I had basic ideas for the next two novels. But for a long time I was afraid of the “then what?” aspect. I thought I’d gotten lucky with my first idea and had no idea how these other successful authors had the ability to think up the stuff they did on a consistent basis.

    THEN, I started LISTENING to my crazy ADD thoughts and began to actively take them further with “well then what if this happened” or “if I added this aspect then it would be…”. Now I have tons (okay, that’s probably an exaggeration) of ideas for new books. I write them down and save them for later because I can’t bring myself to give them life when my wip needs my attention to become all growed up and sent off to agents and publishers.

    I look forward to the day I can pull out those crazy thoughts and stretch them into another fantastic story.

    Thanks for the great post today, Chuck. And thanks in advance for creating the requested photoshop picture. (see? i told you. not letting it go.)

  • I always thought caffeine was a muse for me; her best friend, alcohol helps sometimes, too. They seem to grease the mind’s wheels. I’m with Gina, too,constantly having thoughts popping in and out. If they stay long enough I consider them inspiration. Of course there’s always the light bill, gas bill and money for food and said beverages. Nothing like low funds in the bank to get ideas flowing and fingers tapping.

  • All most done with chapter 10, so I’m at the 25% mark. Yay!

    My muse is not turning on the television or entering anything into google search. I cannot explain how well this works. It’s like rocket science or something. But I could use an owl to, so I can be like Harry Potter. Maybe I should just get rat. Ron was more funny. Oh, and I heard that avoiding MMO’s helps a lot to.

  • I find I also have to know when to turn the inspiration spigots off. Once I really get cranking on a WIP, I have to stop reading stuff that’s too close genre-wise. Otherwise, instead of my voice getting itself all ramped up, it gets diluted and derivative. I like to read non-fiction when I’m really cranking.

  • Sometimes I’m afraid to read your blog because I know what you have to say will totally kick my ass.

    Take, for example, this post. Ouch. And also, Yay! Not to mention, Thanks.

    Oh, and I was one of the 16,000. Duuuuude. The owl. Mezzzzzzmeriziiiiiiiing.

  • I should write a post, eventually, about how many writers I see talking about their inspiration in very martial terms. It’s some battle, and one needs to conquer. There’s all this pain and anguish and need for dominance! Then again, maybe that’s how it *is* for many writers, and that’s totally grand. I’m more pointing it out. Several writers I read lately have been talking about their writing as if it’s a war, and I find that terribly fascinating, that’s all.

    Me, I find it a lot like kitchen-witchery. Then again, with me *everything* comes back to the kitchen.

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