20 unlikely places to find inspiration: Part II

Last week I started this series with Part I. It’s already inspired some of you to write! Here’s Part II…

6. Shopping lists
Or receipts. Or notes stuck to the fridge. Or train tickets. These things can all provide poetic fuel, particularly if they belong to someone else. Next time you spot a receipt blowing along in the wind, grab it and take a look! Who dropped it? Look at what they bought and figure out what kind of person they might be. Who served them? How did they interact?
And how about shopping lists? What was on the mind of the person who scribbled their list? Why does “flour” come first, for example… were they planning to bake cupcakes for a birthday party? Mix their own chemical-free wallpaper paste? Make a flour-bomb and play a prank on a friend? Make papier mache animals? You decide!

7. Reference books.
Billy Collins once wrote a poem about how interesting it is to just read an encyclopaedia, cover-to-cover. But it’s not just interesting - it can be inspiring, too. Reference books contain all sorts of information, which can be translated into poetry - you can learn about people, places, inventions and objects that you might never have known about otherwise. You can learn about the meaning of words - any word, even your own name. Susan Wooldridge loves biology reference books that list the scientific and informal names for fish, birds, trees and flowers:

“I brought wildflower books on family hikes in the park until I realised my obsession with the name of each flower was ruining our walks. For better or worse, by then we could recognise fiddle neck, stork bill, butter and eggs, gold field, yellow carpet, brodiea, seepspring monkey flower, Indian paintbrush, tidy tips, popcorn flower, shooting star, birdseye and owl’s clover, among others… [Before,] the woods were just kinda green.”
- Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life With Words.

Why is a pansy also called Kit-run-in-the-fields? Why do we use the expression “a kettle of fish”? Find out, or just speculate, and make up a poem as you go.

8. Nursing homes.
Here’s your chance to make a difference to your local community, AND to open up a goldmine of inspiration. This applies to hospitals, day centres and daytrips too - anywhere where the awesome elderly can be found. Think anyone over 70 is out of touch with the world you live in? Think again - those people built the world you live in, for better or worse. So get volunteering - or even working - with elderly people. Chat to them - they have all the best stories, and all too often they’re in need of someone to tell them to. In my many conversations with these lovely people, I’ve heard from a 94 year old lady who worked as a paramedic in World War 2, with only a few days’ rushed medical training, and I’ve met a guy who reckons he made his fortune smuggling diamonds. My own crazy grandmother has been the subject of many a juicy poem. In short, most young people = yet to get interesting, while elderly people = living, breathing poems.

9. Listening.
Put yourself anywhere where you can sit comfortably and listen in to other people’s conversations. I know it’s nosy and very un-British, but even a throwaway remark picked up on the breeze can make a great poem title or ending line. Next time you’re at the hairdressers/supermarket/whatever, tune into the background chatter. Pick up the tiny dramas of people’s lives while you grab a cup of coffee. And if you really can’t stand the idea of being a total nosy parker… ask. Strike up a conversation with your local newsagent, or ask the taxi driver who picks you up how their day is going. Either way, all you have to do is listen… the ideas are there, you just need to receive them!

10. Classified ads.
Unless you’re on the lookout for something, chances are you never really pay attention to those little ads in the back of your newspaper. And frankly, it’s time you did! Personally, I like the “desperately seeking” ones best… you know: “you, striking blonde with your arm in plaster. Me: the guy with the black bag who helped you in Tesco. Can’t forget you.” They sound ridiculous, but they’re full of potential! Who’s the blonde? Why did their have their arm in plaster? What was in the black bag? Why so unforgettable?!
Even the buying/selling ads are interesting. Imagine the possibilities of “locked strongbox for sale, offers considered”, or “wanted: photographs of British expatriates in India, early 20th century.” Next time you buy a paper, find an ad that appeals, or check out classifieds online. Mess around with them. Make poems.

Tell me your unlikely inspirations!

Also to read:
20 unlikely places to find inspiration: Part I
How to write a poem RIGHT NOW
Quit procrastinating!

(Photo by Greenhem)

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10 Responses to “20 unlikely places to find inspiration: Part II”

  1. swiss Says:

    er… i don’t know as i believe in inspiration any more than i believe in writer’s block! my point in doing these is more about not thinking about the writing - just write!

    writing down ideas fast may not be for everyone (five poems in 45 minutes - top that!) but i found that getting people to write spontaneously was a good way of breaking down creative barriers, opening up the imagination and, probably most importantly, allowing themselves to write down nonsense

    this last i found was a particular hurdle when i was doing creative writing classes. people spend so much time thinking, they;re not writing, it loses all spontaneity! people spend so much time worrying if it’ll be good or not they don’t write! exercises are a brilliant way of getting over this. they introduce the notion that work is a thing in progress, the idea of a practice of writing and, tat even if you don’t like something you can always go back and, more often than not, there’s a kernel of an idea that’s worth revisiting

  2. swiss Says:

    oh yes, and particularly if you’re doing this with a group of people you’ve got a bit of trust in - it’s a lark!

  3. Simon Freedman Says:

    I know, I know, I’m a wicked person for saying it, and it’s bad for your health and those around you etc, but…..

    I do find that letting your thoughts wander over a slow cigarette can be a very effective stimulus for the old creative impulses…

    but don’t do it kids, it stunts your growth

  4. Jim Murdoch Says:

    I’m with Swiss when it comes to inspiration. There is nothing magical about it and I’m keen to demystify the process. Inspiration to my way of thinking is nothing more than a good idea. And if you don’t have a good idea then run with any old idea and see what develops. There was a site I used to subscribe too where the site owner would put up a word every day or so and look for a poem based around it. And, do you know, I turned out some good stuff writing for it. You just need to get your fingers clattering away on that keyboard. Once the momentum is going you never know where you might end up. But you won’t write anything thinking about writing, not that that doesn’t have its place and I believe strongly in rest periods, but that is a subject for another time.

  5. Claire Says:

    Swiss - your speed-writing idea is interesting. ALL of the creative writing tutors/academics of the field I’ve met have been all for slow, careful creation of poems - I’m currently doing this MSc and we’re told that, for workshops, if we bring in “obviously written in half an hour”-type poems or “obvious first drafts,” we’ll be in trouble. That’s just plain bizarre - workshops can really help to refine early drafts, but also, everyone writes differently… and as you say, writing things quickly can be very productive.
    I also totally agree that poets need to be prepared for the fact that sometimes, they will produce rubbish, and that doesn’t matter. You cringe, put it aside and move on… you don’t, as you say, spend forever panicking about making sure you get it right every time.

    As for inspiration - trust me, I agree when it comes to thinking about writing. Sitting down and thinking “right, I’m going to write a poem now” is creative suicide. The purpose of this series of articles is really to get people looking for new ideas in unusual places. Many (particularly younger) poets tend to have fixed notions about where their creativity comes from… I’m just trying to point out that there are ideas for poems everywhere. Call that inspiration, incentive, just an exercise, whatever. “Inspiration” is just an easy word that covers an abstract concept… I certainly don’t have any ideas about it being magical (re Jim’s point), or thinking you’re struck by it as if by lightning!

  6. Claire Says:

    PS: Simon - why don’t you go the whole way with the romantic thoughful poet image and recommend living in a garret and drinking copious amounts of absinthe, too?! The damage to all my poor young readers is already done!

  7. Chris Lindores Says:

    I am with Simon, and Claire’s suggestion, on chemical-based inspiration. Although cigarettes and alcohol help day-to-day life in general, not just poetry…

    Chris ‘dead by 30′ Lindores

  8. NathanKP Says:

    Very nice blog. I found it through Jim’s post on The Truth about Lies.

    This is great advice about how to find inspiration. As a writer myself I have experienced how difficult it can sometime be to find the right topics. You have given me some great ideas. Thank you.

    NathanKP - Imagination Manifesto

  9. swiss Says:

    of course you’re right, i’m just being a bit pedantic about any form of inspiration being connected with me! tho i don’t think it’s just young poets who have fixed ideas about where creativity comes from. if anything i think it gets worse with age. now there’s a cheerless thought. on the bright side exercises such as the above will crowbar out the odd idea, in spite of them!

  10. No Way Says:

    When i began writing seven yrs ago, i found the just write method was the one for me, and understand now after having written however millions of words, why.

    I view poems as Stephen King views his stories, like an archeological dig. They are all there, just waiting to be found, but unless you dig, they won’t appear. And so for three years at university doing a writing degree which started seven months after i began writing, haltingly at first, the odd page coming out here and there, the process and speed upped, slowly, and it was fortunate as the development of my intelligence into summat that half resembles that of a real bores, occurred parallel to writing creative stuff.

    the way i looked at it from the start, was that if i could die with having written just one poem that could stand next to the worst of Shakespeare’s sonnets, i am going to hell a happy sinner and it wasn’t till much later after educating myself, i came across the theory of Charles Bernstein, the second most repsected teflon head after Asheberry in this particular made up system i am pretending is real fopr the purposes of getting out a few more words, one two three four etc..he has it that we should embrace failure as a method of working, just fall on yer arse, get back up and carry on, ok, you will cringe at first, but the worst is to stop and think about the other bores, what theythink of you.

    The biggest inhibitor is other ppl sneering and judging you, and it works both ways. You could get prized up from an early age, everyone saying how fab you are, and overblowing the truth, manifest in the many boring people who think they are interesting who do not write that much and base their beleif that they are summat, oon the strength of what others have said, or awarded them. True beleif as a poet can only come from within, which is reached by digging in, writing to find your soul and after a while, a few years, six or seven is the usual, you find out if you are on to summat or not, in the sense of knowing yourself, regardless of who says what, where you are published or how others view you, as it is a game with ourself, Art, in the quest to find beauty in words, to make our life a sculpted verbal edifice, for the purpose of self-enobling, So instead of getting knighted and becoming a Sir, looking to anohter to make you feel good about ouself, we become Sir, Lord King, Queen or any other bit of verbal wordplay which makes us feel fab about who we are, as a single human being the same as any other.

    Look, another practice, a few hundred words, who cares what as it is only marks on a screen most of the world can’t raead who don’t have english and that’s the way to fail..