I used to have this recurring dream as a kid. I’d be sitting in a park somewhere, or at the dinner table, or in a classroom, and suddenly the sky would blink open, or the roof would come apart, and this hand would reach out, palm open, waiting for me to take hold.
It sounds a little terrifying written down like that, but they were never nightmares. I always felt this excitement in my gut, because I knew that as soon as I took that hand, I would be flung into a new adventure: I’d wake up to find myself in an undiscovered Incan ruin, or the bowels of space.
I think those dreams are a part of the reason I fell so hard for Doctor Who. A show about a dapper, well-coiffed alien, with a twinkle in his eye, a time machine at his beck and call, and a firm belief in his companion’s innate greatness? Sold and sold.
The other part is that, as a writer, I think the Doctor personified the way I thought of inspiration. I would be going about my daily life when Dr. Muse would crash into my backyard, invite me onto his ship, and guide me toward discovering new lands. As the muse’s companion, I was always a writer waiting: waiting to be inspired, waiting to be shown incredible things.
Lately, though, I’m realizing that it might be okay to have greater ambitions. You can only be a companion for so long, after all. To aspire to be the Doctor himself—the eye-opener rather than the tourist—seems a little laughable, a little egotistical. Honestly, it’s a little scary. But, hey, so is deciding to write a novel in thirty days.
Besides, the Doctor has a lot to teach us about being our own inspiration generator:
1. Be curious about your world. Ask questions. The Doctor’s maintained a pretty boundless interest in things for someone around 900 years old. There’s a particular humility in approaching every situation as new, as an opportunity to learn something.
I have a friend who I admire because she’s so great at asking questions. Usually, in a conversation, I trickle down to silence within a few minutes, but she can come up with real, engaging questions without breaking a sweat. I told her once that I admired her for it, and she said, “I don’t know. If you try hard enough, you can make yourself genuinely interested in most people.” Haha, it felt like a sick burn at the time, but it’s stuck with me as one of the more valuable pieces of wisdom I’ve ever heard.
2. Keep your eyes open and soak in the details. Totally related to the above, yes. But what’s the point of venturing out if you don’t bother to actually observe? It’s the details that can set your inspiration alight, whether it’s noticing the tics and habits of the tattooed bassist at the bakery next door, or the window placement at Alcatraz.
Plus, practicing avoiding blinking will be useful if you ever come across a Weeping Angel.
3. Remember and record your observations. I have small flashes of insight when I’m formulating a story: snippets of conversation, or a character flaw, or the perfect setting for a confrontation. I never write them down, and always go on to regret it.
Don’t be me. Write these down, tell them to a friend, recite them to yourself over and over…whatever you have to do to preserve them. What can seem as innocuous as a crack in your bedroom wall can lead you to the perfect moment of crisis for the story you want to tell.
4. Have utter faith in your people. This counts for your characters hardcore. Whether they’re villains or heroes, saints or irredeemable, believing in them and knowing them as fully as you can could spell the difference between having them come through for you in a pinch, and being totally abandoned by them just as the Pandorica opens. Sympathize with their strengths and weaknesses. Find the gap in their morality, or the glimmer of light in their pitch-dark, Dalek soul.
Have faith in your future readers, too. Sometimes, it can be hard to believe that there’s someone out there who your words will speak to, who could have a little revelation because of a story you poured your heart into…
Don’t give into doubt. Take your readers away, Author. They’re waiting out there. Show them incredible things.
Photo by Flickr user ShellyS