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When to let your inspiration go

I recently gave my first keynote speech at a writer’s conference. Hoping to speak on a topic to which my multiple-arts experience could give a new twist, I explored what literary artists have in common with people like choreographers, painters, composers, and architects: we are all trying in some way to manipulate a piece of this great big messy thing called life so that we might come to terms with it.

I outlined my draft from experience, then looked up quotes from artists in all genres that would support the points I wanted to make. I had great stuff from poet Amy Lowell, painter Pablo Picasso, director Federico Fellini, and more. These witnesses gave me the authority I needed to chart my arguments.

My husband timed my speech the day before the conference. He said I made a lot of good points but—God love him for telling me—he admitted to being bored in a few places.

We quickly pegged the culprits: he drifted every time I read one of those quotes. They pulled him away from what I was trying to achieve.

I deleted them all. As inspiration, the quotes had served their purpose; I could now release them from duty. When I gave the revised speech the next day, my audience remained engaged.

For those of us who write speeches, narrative nonfiction, memoirs, or personal essays, it sometimes feels arrogant to think that people are interested in our own perceptions and stories. Yet consider this: Windows 7 commercials aside, it can sound even more arrogant to explain the thought process behind writing your piece. “I was in the shower this morning and as the shampoo bubbles went down the drain I had this wonderful idea to make my operating system much simpler…”

Letting your inspiration hang out can also sound apologetic—like it’s someone else’s fault you came up with this material—which is the wrong tone for an authoritative piece. Many essayists make the mistake of describing their inspiration in their opening. Not only can this make your essay sound sophomoric (“The reason I am writing this is…), but that inspiration that worked so well for you can stymie the reader as she tries to orient herself to your piece. You are assuming her mind will work in the same way yours does. Thank goodness, our minds work in different ways, which is the whole point of the essay form—to deliver fresh perspective.

Please note I'm not speaking about anecdotal material that pulls the reader into your argument, such as I used in the opening of this piece. I'm talking about that story-within-a-story that you never read, because I already deleted it, about when I first learned to jettison inspiration from a famous choreographer who critiqued my work in college. I learned this concept as a dancer. Asking writers to make that leap would not serve this piece.

A time may come when your inspiration is no longer relevant to what you are trying to accomplish; your thoughts will have evolved beyond the “starter” material. This tends to happen in fiction inspired by true events. I’ll be editing along, enjoying the fictive dream, and “POP”—out I go. The perpetrator: a piece of dialogue that just doesn’t fit. When I suggest deleting it, the writer says, “but that’s really how it happened!” I could have predicted this.

Your reader doesn’t know what really happened and your reader doesn’t care. He just wants dialogue that seems relevant to the characters as developed on the page and the story you are now writing. The challenge for memoirists is to develop their characters on the page so that "real" dialogue actually rings true.

Your readers don’t need to know your inspiration; they want to witness the inspired work.

I hope we can agree that all creative endeavor is inspired. As artists we comb through our memories and observations and passions and fears for our material, and then make something of it. That’s how art works. It's what makes it mysterious. Readers may think, "How did she get that idea?", but they may be disappointed once they know.

Part of being a creative artist is knowing when to let your inspiration go so that your own work can be born.

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at She was offered her first paid writing gig because she was also a dancer and choreographer. She went on to enjoy a 19-year career as a dance critic and arts journalist before turning to literary women's fiction and memoir.

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  1. Great post! This is always something that bears repeating.
    Inspiration leads you but doesn't have to be included in the body of work.
    Thank you.
    Giggles and Guns

  2. Well said. Writing fiction is about telling a different kind of truth.

  3. Interesting post. It relates a bit to writing fiction based on real-life events. Knowing parts of the true story, or knowing one or more of the real people involved in the story, can hold an author's imagination captive--one more reason why an author might need to let go of inspiration and move ahead on her own.

  4. Your points are well taken and very helpful. A grat reminder as I work on my memoir and decide what should stay and what should go.

  5. Excellent piece. When we're writing fiction, even if it's based on the truth, we need to write what will make a good story.



  6. Very well put. I've had every one of my novels evolve out of their original spark of inspiration, and knowing when it must go is a crucial skill to have.

    Blood-Red Pencil

  7. Very true, we have to let go of good insipration if it doesn't fit the great scheme of things.

    Really Angelic


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