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 http://cwgministries.org/
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.