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Thursday, July 15, 2010

How to Receive Inspiration - Writing Class Series Week 2

Last week in our “Inspiration and Perspiration” series, we discussed Christian writing and decided that it is any writing inspired by the Holy Spirit with the goal of advancing God’s kingdom on earth. Since no one disagreed with the definition, I will allow it to lead naturally into our next topic. How do we receive inspiration?

All writers need inspiration. Usually they refer to the source of inspiration as “the muse.” As Christians, our primary muse has a more specific name, the Holy Spirit. However, I don’t think we need to be overly spiritual about how we expect our muse to strike. Inspiration can come at the oddest moments.

Life events and people we meet in the course of the day offer inspiration and writing ideas. Other books and movies are great sources of inspiration. Sometimes inspiration seems to come “out of the blue.” This probably means our subconscious has been working on it for a while and spits it out when our mind is relaxed and wandering. And finally, I do believe inspiration can come directly from the Holy Spirit through seeking God in prayer. If inspiration comes in a more natural way, I would simply suggest taking the idea to God to see if it indeed came from him, and to ask for further direction.

Last week we also discussed that God is not likely to give us a fully developed book on a silver platter. He gives us a lump of clay idea that needs to be formed and crafted through hard work. So what sort of ideas should we be looking for? If you are writing a poem or short devotional, it is conceivable that the whole thing might come to you in one sitting. However, if you are working on a book, it is unlikely that the original inspiration will come to you in the form of the beginning of the manuscript.

Here are some ways your ideas are more likely to come to you. First, would be a theme, premise, or story question. For example, with my first novel, I started with a question. “What is true love?” I wasn’t sure of the answer at the time. The theme of the book later became, “True love is found in and flows from God.” Or, I could have started with the premise, which has more to do with the details of the story. “Haunting memories hinder a medieval peasant girl’s quest for true love.”

From there, I went on to an outline, which was inspired by a Eugene O’Neil play I read in high school where a woman goes through a series of relationships with various men in search of true love. I believe this plot outline was indeed a gift from God, because as I’ve continued in my writing career, plots don’t come naturally to me. A plot or outline could be the first idea to come to you.

Some people may begin with the idea for a character or setting. Write them down. Do a character sketch or a descriptive writing. A passage of dialogue, otherwise known as a conversation, is another great place to start. You might begin with a full blown chapter or scene, but it might come from a random place in the book. Again, don’t expect to start in the beginning.

In the fiction world, we talk about the difference between pantsters and plotters. Pansters just start writing and see where the story and characters will organically take them. Some great writers are professed pantsters, but they also admit they need to do a lot of work on the outline in later revisions. Plotters plan beforehand. I’m sure the same is true of nonfiction. Some authors plan, some fly by the seat of their pants. I consider myself a combination. Usually, I start with an idea. Write a few chapters to meet the characters and familiarize myself with the story. Then I stop and outline so I can work more strategically and not waste time.

The bane of the writing profession is something called writer’s block. Personally, I don’t do writer’s block. Writer’s block occurs when you try to write without having inspiration, which I won’t even attempt. This scripture perfectly embodies how I write, and how I strive to live. It's from Matthew 11:28-30 in the Message translation. "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly."

So the ideal goal is to allow our lives and our writing to flow freely and lightly from the spirit of God within us. But in case you do struggle with writer's block, here are some great tips for overcoming it. 1) Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, research, etc… Any of those will switch you out of your right brained creativity and into your left brained logic. Deal with them later. 2) Don’t start at the beginning. 3) Just pick up a pencil and write any crazy thing in your head without filtering it. 4) Brainstorm. 5) Do a physical activity or mundane chore that will leave your mind free to wander. 6) Exercise. The extra oxygen intake is good for your mind. 7) Spend time in nature. 8) Listen to music. 9) Pray. 10) Take a nap and allow your subconcious to work.

Again, remember that the Holy Spirit is our primary muse. We as writers need to “court the muse,” meaning actively invite it and seek to interact with it. Here are ideas for receiving writing inspiration directly from the Holy Spirit in prayer. Notice that they incorporate many of the tips above. Also, I should mention that these are great methods for communicating with God and hearing his voice concerning any issue in your life.

First, you must “be still” as Psalm 46:10 teaches. It is important to pause from the madness of your busy day, to quiet your spinning mind, and to give God your full attention. Take some slow deep breaths, perhaps listen to worship music, read or quote some encouraging scriptures, spend a few moments out in nature. Once you feel calm, focus your thoughts upon God, praise and thank Him, tell Him how much you love Him, meditate upon Him. Remember that the kingdom of God is within you. The spirit of God resides in your heart. So you must put aside outward distractions and turn inward to find him. God is always speaking, but our job is to be quiet enough to listen.

I realize the word “meditate” has taken a bad rap in some Christian circles, and not without good reason, but repeatedly throughout scripture we are instructed to meditate upon God and upon His word. Christian meditation should not focus upon self, and it should not be an emptying of self in order to invite some unknown entity into our beings. The point of meditating is to ponder God, to seek His face, to mull over His attributes, His wonder and beauty.

Keep in mind the Hebrew word for “meditate,” which is “hagah,” can also be translated as “imagine.” Writers have great imaginations, so engage yours in your relationship with God. Picture yourself meeting with Jesus in a favorite place. Walk together hand in hand with your Savior. Cuddle up in the lap of your Heavenly Daddy. Look deep into His loving eyes.

Next, take time to listen. God most often speaks to us in a still small voice that comes to our hearts through a spontaneous flow of thoughts, visions, and impressions. John 7:38 refers to streams of living water flowing out of us. As you meet with God allow Him to speak to you, ask Him questions, wait and listen for His answers. Don’t be afraid. Let it flow.

Now comes the important part, especially for writers. Write it down! Record what God is speaking to you on paper. Stay in that flow. At this point, don’t judge what you’re writing for scriptural accuracy. Don’t worry about grammar, syntax or spelling. Don't try to figure out if the idea has the marketing potential to become the next bestseller. Just get it onto the paper. That way, it's yours. You can always go back to it later. You can also test it against God’s word or even show it to your spiritual advisors if you feel uncertain about anything you've written.

Next week we will talk more about how the Biblical authors received inspiration and how they crafted that inspiration into writing which is still revered as some of the finest literature of its time.

I will finish with mentioning that after I did some lump of clay writing on my first novel, I stuck the notebook in a drawer for five years. During that time I taught school, researched the medieval time period, and had another baby. But when I was ready to write, everything was still there and waiting for me. So I repeat, whatever God is speaking to you, be it an idea, scene, or outline, write it down!

For more information about communicating with God, I highly recommend How to Hear God’s Voice by Mark Virkler and other related resources available on his website at

Homework: Spend time actively listening to God this week. It’s possible that if you’ve been out of touch with him for a while, you may end up talking about more important things than your writing career. If so, that’s fine. But write down whatever he is speaking to you. And if possible, begin some lump of clay writing on the idea you wish to work on during the eight week class.


  1. I loved this class. I was able to see what I was doing wrong and also how to just push my own preconcieved ideas away of how writting should be done.I was definitely doing the pantsters method and I found out the hard way that this dosen't work for me. I am a methodical thinker and therefore I have to plan everything out and I realized I try to left and right brain at the same time.

  2. Wow, good insights, Louise. During week four I'll be teaching on plotting, which will help you to begin to see how to put a novel together. In the meantime, just keep recording your ideas. Work on pieces of fiction for now like dialogue, description, character sketch. Later you'll begin understanding how to work them all together into a scene.

  3. At our class last night, I think I was fighting the "meditate with God" writing activity for a few minutes. My first "meditation" was something like, "How can I meditate? I don't feel relaxed at church! There's too much going on! I have a baby who's probably crying, VBS things to plan and people to see, planning for my other summer school class..." and so on. First, God spoke to me to say, "Don't tell me church is not a relaxing place. Say that it is, and then make it so!"
    So, per Dina's idea of picturing Jesus, I pictured Jesus walking right into the foyer of the church, into the sanctuary, and down the hall by the classrooms. What a calming vision! Imagine how powerful and different our church experience would be every time we entered those doors if we pictured Jesus physically there with us! His light and serenity falling on everyone and everything He passed.
    So, that meditation thing did work out for me after all!
    (And yes, Dina, I did write it down!)

  4. Wow, Caitlin. It really blesses me to read that. I've been doing this with the ladies in our Bible study this year. Kim said that one day she tried it during the Sunday worship service and Robert Alston (who is very prophetic for those of you who aren't from the church) said he really could sense God all over her that day and he just wanted to stand near her. I'm glad you were able to get it in the short time we had to spend on the subject. God never ceases to amaze me.

  5. Okay, Dina, I meant to get over here immediately this morning after seeing your note, but it's now almost 4pm....sigh.

    I remember watching an episode of LOST where Cop Ana Lucia went all nutso on the criminal that was released from jail. She hunted him down. He asked her why she was doing this. Still I can imagine her standing in the parking garage, gun aimed at the guy, yelling "I was pregnant!"

    I remember staring at the tv with the thought, "That's the rage my story's secondary character has." No she wasn't pregnant. But her loss and grief pushed her to murder the man responsible and then in guilt return that hatred to everyone around her.

    Everything around us is inspiration...if we look.

    As I've been adding layers to my medieval, one of my focuses has been adding depth all my characters. Part of adding depth is choosing the right words for the POV character's narration. One secondary rides a gray horse. Well, I decided gray was too boring a description so I googled horse colors. Found a fascinating page. Once I picked the right shade of gray and added that to the story, I realized the secondary didn't choose that horse because of its unique color. He chose the horse because of physical defect the horse had, which fit with the secondary's character trait of havind a tenderness toward those less fortunate.

    Again, inspiration is out there but we have to look for it. Everywhere.

  6. Thanks for the input, Gina. As for characters, I like to do a Meyers-Briggs psychological profile on each of my characters. It helps to keep their personalities distinct, realistic, and consistent.

    For instance in my contemporary novel, Layla's thoughts tend to be rational, logical, and scientific. Where as Rain's are usually random and whimsical. Once I decided what each of them would be majoring on in college, I just looked up the personality types likely to pursue those careers.

    You're right, personality comes out a lot in inner dialogue. Also clothing, decorating, and of course regular dialogue. Everyone who has read my contemporary novel (even a few judges who weren't crazy about the book) has mentioned how strong the characterization is and that each character has a unique voice.

  7. Psychological profile? You're making me woozy. I took one one time and found out I have no personality. So sad.

    For basic character formation, after deciding on story goals, I like to assign a spiritual gift (if a Believer) and/or a birth order archtype. Then I add twists.

  8. Actually, Gina, that's a really good idea too. I'm taking a class at church on spiritual gifts right now, and I've noticed how the motivational gifts are very similar to some of these personality types.

  9. I think I'm going to make a sign that says "I Don't Do Writer's Block" and hang it over my desk.
    Very helpful, Dina! Thank you for sharing these lessons with us!

  10. Well Honestly, I took a personality test and it said I am ENFJ so I am highly judgmental lol no wonder my character analyzes everything.

  11. I'm an INFJ, but barely a J. I'm pretty balanced on all the letters except the N. I'm a hardcore intuit. Almost all creative writers are NF's with many being INFJ's. You're right, Louise. If you're a J, plotting should work much better for you.

  12. Oh, and if you're an E and a writer, writers communities and critique partners will be crucial to your survival.

  13. Indeed and I am going to start seeking those out here soon cause I know me I will get discouraged if I don't have critique partners.

  14. Henrietta FrankenseeMarch 24, 2011 at 3:59 PM

    The funny thing is, though I have always enjoyed creating fiction of all types, with this story it was God who sought me out. He is like an impatient toddler. He gives me a section to write and then tumbles the words in my head until I write them down. If I don't they 'burn within me' like poor old Jeremiah. Did you write them yet, did you, did you? Why didn't you write them yet, you should write them now....
    It has been 8 years so far. Two periods of grief interrupted the flow and I am just coming out of the second one.
    I love that you say the chapters or scenes might not come in order. From my Author they come all over the place. Sometimes it'll be 3 years before I see the conclusion or reason for a particular action or detail. It always blows my mind when it comes.
    My biggest challenge is putting them in order after the fact and filling in the details between so time flows appropriately. A story board with lots of little sticky notes is like the Rosetta stone to it all.

  15. Wonderful, Henrietta. I'm getting more and more excited about this book of yours. Sounds like you support my theory that God gives us the lump of clay, but expects us to do the hard work. Like you, I overflow with ideas, and my challenge has been learning to craft them into something publishable.

  16. Henrietta FrankenseeMarch 25, 2011 at 4:49 PM

    Thank you for getting excited about my story! After this week's Novelmatters discussion I wonder if I'll ever share it. I have a day job that I love (teaching piano) and would write purely for my own happiness if I didn't have this great desire to laugh and cry with other people about the events and the characters. Publishing just seems so daunting.
    I do support your Lump of Clay theory. I've been thinking about it all day and am going to write something for lesson 3 now.