Sometimes, an idea arrives fully formed. Sometimes a character taps on your door and stands there impatiently waiting. Sometimes it’s clear.
But often it’s not.
Often, the thing that you want to write is muddy, or messy. You have a sense that you want to write a memoir about that time in your life when you worked in a circus… Or you came across a historical fact that you think would make a great novel…
But you’re not really sure.
And so you lurch about, beginning something, then swinging off to a shiny new idea on the horizon.
There is only one brilliant idea: the one that is making you salivate.
The problem is often that we lose touch with our creative desires. We can get so desperate to please a potential reader or publisher or agent or film producer that we stop listening to our own instincts. That can happen on an idea level. I have had so many conversations with writers I’ve mentored, which run along these lines: the new writer asks with increasing desperation: ‘will publishers like this idea? What if I set it in the belly of a whale? Whales seem to be big right now, would that make them like it more?’ And each time I reply: listen to your instinct. Write what matters to you.
Of course I’ve been there. Of course I’ve tried – especially when I was a playwright – to write the words I thought would win applause. But it never worked.
I used to be one of those people you don’t want to eat in a restaurant with. Not because of bad table manners – more because of an inability to choose. I’d read over the menu, ask everyone else what they were having, and then waver three or six or ten times before I ordered. And then I’d call the waiter back and change my order. Twice.
It wasn’t really to do with indecision, though it seemed that way.
It was most often to do with a lack of clarity about what I wanted. About what I wanted right then, in that moment.
Once I understood this, I started practising a ‘no regrets’ choice: I learned to pause before reading the menu and think about what my body wants. Salty? Sour? Fresh? Fried? And then I read the menu, looking for the item that resembles what I’d already decided I had an appetite for.
How does this relate to creative instinct?
I so often see new writers who are out of touch with their own creative appetites. When I see or hear or read something that sparks a creative flare in me, I can feel it almost immediately: a shiver of recognition. For me, it starts in the belly, a tremble of desire not unlike infatuation or nervousness. Other writers talk about hairs on their arms prickling, or dry mouth excitement, or butterflies…
Usually, there’s a physical feeling, a trace. A recognition. You don’t need to unpack why that idea – or that scene, or that moment – is appealing to you, any more than you need to unpack why you desire salad today and yesterday wanted chips. Just follow the spark.
This shiver of recognition is one of the most important tools in your creative toolkit. This is your guide.
It may take some time to learn to notice it. But if you invite it, it will come.
Use that guide to decide what story to write – but also to know whether a scene is working, to decide whether to go down a particular research rabbit hole or not. The nervous flutter, the dry mouth, the prickle on the back of your neck – however you receive it, the shiver of recognition is the clue, the guide and the gatekeeper.
Not your sister. Not your spouse. Not your agent, or your publisher, or Reese Witherspoon.
Today, take a moment to read over some of your own writing from the last few weeks. When are you sparking? When do you get the shiver? If you’re deeper in the project – when did it first excite you? Return to that first moment, the moment of infatuation – and let it lead you on.
They dig down deep…