Article 2: Inspiration or Inclination? – Part 2 – Guest Post by Phillip T. Stephens…

The Hunt for Elusive Inspiration.

(part 2 of 2)

Photo Credit Clem Onojeghuo at

My previous post discussed what inspires writers and I suggested that most aspiring young writers (ASWs) begin with an idea that smolders inside them, waiting for them to push it onto paper. They only need to discover how they can channel that inspiration into words.

Once they publish, and realize they need to produce more, they discover inspiration isn’t a well after all. It’s a resource they must replenish. What to write about now?

Too often ASWs treat inspiration as an epiphany, an experience that has nothing to do with them. In reality, different writers find different sources of inspiration, which results in a smorgasbord of stories, poems, articles and films. Looking for inspiration requires practice and effort as much as writing and editing. College design classes often require students to produce dozens of thumbnails for their ideas, forcing them to cultivate inspiration. Too few writing classes do the same.

Writer Sarah Martin once commented in a MOOC discussion that the act of gathering materials prompts inspiration:1

…(materials) are all over the place. They are in the soil, mushrooms, sweet potatoes from last season-root systems sharing with each other, they are traffic, that neighbor’s mail you keep receiving, they are within you, your allergies, the story you tell yourself and all those unopened presents backlogged in the recesses of your mind.

Writers take inspiration from art, music, film, stories our grandmothers shared or watching different couples interact at the cafe. When I was in grad school at Michigan State I watched the dust motes dance in the morning sunlight across my couch, which led to a short story about faith, adultery and betrayal that won a first in a juried award.2

In the early eighties a friend, James Mason, and I pulled into a gas stop just outside of Dallas. I’d been in Michigan for several years, and he just moved from North Carolina. Like many Texas stations at the time, oil barrels filled with ice and beer sat next to the pump. Patrons grabbed a 12 ounce or a six-pack with their gas and drove away sipping a cold one. James said, “All they need is a gun rack and it’s one-stop-shopping.”3 Thirty years later, I published a novel inspired by that comment, which I never forgot, Cigerets, Guns & Beer.

Cats inspire too. Not to mention a flash of red hair in a passing car or the scent of jasmine in the breeze. Or the headache you feel when your wife wants to know why you’re still polishing that that goddam poem at 5am when it worked for her two days ago.


Want a source of inspiration? Read. Much of my published writing was inspired by articles, poems and blog posts online. In the summer of 1978 I read my favorite novel, Love in the Ruins, for the first time. The same week I read a very good novel Still Life With Woodpecker . They inspired me to write a novel, which I revised twice, and finally decided not to publish. Perhaps I’ll find the distance to finish it now, but the inspiration of the books will remain.


Images tell stories and some of the word’s great artists told complex stories on a single canvas. Even abstract work like Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, or the surrealist paintings such as Dali’s Persistance of Memory tell stories which can, in turn, inspire yours.


Some of the best writing comes from family. Conversations at dinner, the time you discovered your dad—who insisted you play football—never made the team, finding condoms next to your parents’ bed when you were ten, the time your sister passed out drunk in the family living room when your parents were leaving for church.4

Other families can inspire you. Being raised a Baptist Preacher’s kid, I still remember looking in my best friend’s refrigerator and finding beer. Or the first time he called his father a douche and his father said his best genes ran down his mother’s leg. I didn’t know families could talk that way. There’s a great story there, and one day I may write it.

Active seeing

The best artists, the best designers, the best writers don’t wait for inspiration. They train themselves to find it in garbage, play grounds, at swimming pools, in law journals. Poet Brenda Coultas wrote a series of poems documenting the people and detritus in a poverty stricken neighborhood. Charles Reznikoff took snippets from legal documents and worked them into his writing. Jim Abrahams and David Zucker watched the melodrama Zero Hour and turned it into the comic masterpiece Airplane!.

Writers who wait for inspiration don’t write. At least not often. If you haven’t developed the patience and persistence to look for ideas, the best ones will buzz past for another writer to catch in his net.

  1. Not available to public.
  2. Unfortunately the undergraduate editor of the journal sponsoring the award hated the story and backed down on the promise to publish it. And I lost the story when movers lost my filing cabinet (pre-PC days) but the serendipity of dust motes occasionally resurfaces as a theme.
  3. Or, maybe I said it. Or maybe it was two different guys. I’ve told and embellished the story so many times now, all that remains is the fact that a conversation about gas, guns and beer transpired.
  4. Okay, it was me. But it sounds better when I make my sister the fall guy.

Phillip T. Stephens

Barnes & Noble


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