“Coming up with ideas is the easiest thing on earth. Putting them down is the hardest.”

Rod Serling

What inspires us to write?

What inspired this story idea or inspired you to sit down that day and write something… anything?

Often in this blog I tackle issues of craft. This is the “how to” stuff that can help authors write more clearly, avoid falling into or perpetuating unnecessary rules and strictures, and otherwise learn the rules of grammar, punctuation, usage, and so on. That’s the teachable stuff, the stuff you can actually attend a writing class and learn, that you can sit down and practice, even if sometimes it gets complicated. Things like limited viewpoint third person ties more than a few inexperienced writers in all sorts of knots.

But of course there’s more to fiction (of any genre) than the craft of writing. We all get through the process of learning to write a sentence fairly quickly. At least some of what you learned in high school English class does actually translate. Where and how to “come up with an idea,” or the eternal, and eternally unanswerable question, “is this a good idea?” may remain forever elusive.

Let’s see if anyone out there can shed some light on the mystery of inspiration…

In the introduction to “The Intuitive Thing: Ray Bradbury on the Arts,” author Sam Weller tells this story of the subject of his interview:

LOS ANGELES: The Santa Ana winds blew dry and hot. Ray Bradbury sat in the front seat of a town car, headed south on the 405 Freeway. As the automobile approached an overpass, Bradbury looked out the windshield at the roadway above. Painted along the side was a mural of graffiti art: a swirling black tag of graceful letters, illegible at 60 miles per hour, all surrounded by a splash of vibrant spray-painted color.

“That’s wonderful!” Bradbury remarked, just catching a glimpse of the illegal artwork before the car passed beneath it. “I wonder how those artists hang from the overpasses to do that?” 

A few days later, Bradbury sat down to write the short story, “Ole, Orozco! Siqueiros, Si!,” a tale about a Los Angeles graffiti artist who dies while hanging from an overpass. The story would go on to be published in the collection The Cat’s Pajamas

This is how Bradbury worked. Art and literature of all kinds influenced him: from graffiti to comic strips, fine art, film scores, architecture, and more. 

I love this story. This says, clearly: be open to anything and everything. Where does and idea come from, where and how are we inspired to write? Anything. Everywhere. The entire world around us a giant mishmash of writing prompts.

And as Truman Capote experienced himself, we should remain open to inspiration all along the way—not just get an idea and slavishly cleave to it with our brains shut down.

I invariably have the illusion that the whole play of a story, its start and middle and finish, occur in my mind simultaneously—that I’m seeing it in one flash. But in the working-out, the writing-out, infinite surprises happen. Thank God, because the surprise, the twist, the phrase that comes at the right moment out of nowhere, is the unexpected dividend, that joyful little push that keeps a writer going.

At one time I used to keep notebooks with outlines for stories. But I found doing this somehow deadened the idea in my imagination. If the notion is good enough, if it truly belongs to you, then you can’t forget it—it will haunt you till it’s written.

And here, again, the weird, the ephemeral, the impossible to teach or to quantify: “it will haunt you till it’s written.” That’s not something you can read a book—or this blog post—and acquire. I think inspiration, in a larger sense, is built into all of us. I write about writers writing, but inspiration for a killer app can come to a software designer from anywhere, too. Any human pursuit will be some part craft and some part art. Some part objective, some part subjective.

And of course even being open to new ideas can only take an idea so far. In Never Say You Can’t Survive Charlie Jane Anders wrote:

There’s no shame whatsoever in writing five sentences (or five pages) of a story before deciding that it’s not going to click after all—you’ll know you’ve found “the one” when it keeps popping into your head, and you keep thinking of more places you could go with it. Plus, sometimes you’ll come back to one of those stories you started, and suddenly have a great idea of how to finish it. I’ve put plenty of half-finished stories aside, only to come back years later and find my way to the end of them.

So it may take some unknowable length of time for the sort of inspiration-along-the-way that Capote talked about to show up, or at least to show up in a constructive way that solves a specific problem you’ve run into in a work in progress.

That only leaves the question: “Is this a good idea?” I wrote about that in a bit more detail just recently, and in the end, I think Samuel Taylor Coleridge pretty much nailed it 204 years ago in Biographia Literaria:

The prerogative of poetic genius (is) to distinguish by parental instinct its proper offspring from the changelings, which the gnomes of vanity or the fairies of fashion may have laid in its cradle or called by its names.

At some point, you just… know.


—Philip Athans


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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Jason J McCuiston says:

    Oddly enough, I think this is the hardest part for me. Maybe not getting the inspirational idea itself, but overcoming that inner critic that says, “It’s been done before a hundred times and by writers a hundred times better than you.” When I’ve finally wrestled that bastard to the ground and subdued the inspirational idea with Jack London’s proverbial club, then I slip into the work with comparative ease. I wonder if this problem stems from the fact that I’ve read so many great stories by so many great writers in the genres I prefer? I do envy people like the late great Bradbury and my friend Gregory Norris who seem to inhale ideas and exhale fully-formed tales of wonder.

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