Hear More Stories to Make More Stories

You can never read, listen to, or watch too many stories.

As I am writing this (in preparation for taking a short writing hiatus at the beginning of 2020), I am fresh off of seeing the new Star Wars movie for the first time. I’m not going to spend time talking about Star Wars on this blog because, well … why?

But watching this movie and discussing it extensively with positive fan communities like Youtini has stirred something up in me that I did not expect. Something I was not prepared for. Something I do not think I can ignore.

I suddenly have a very strong, almost uncontrollable urge to tell stories. Like, a lot of stories. More than I have felt motivated to write in quite some time.

How did we get here? It’s simple, really. I experienced a story. And sometimes, that’s all you actually need.

Inspiration does not always come from obvious places. I think everyone at least tries to have their go-to inspirational “activities” whether they feel they are in need of inspiration or not. It differs for each individual writer in many cases. I, for example, am inspired by music. The specific songs that spark spontaneous ideas within me rotate depending on what I’m into that week, but the principle remains the same. I turn it on, it overwhelms me, and I turn to my computer and I start writing.

But this is not always how inspiration works. I’m always very quick to say you can’t always simply scroll through a collection of inspirational quotes and expect to get a good writing session out of it, but I also have to assume this works for some people, and I don’t want to judge. However, there are many writers who may not realize that inspiration often emerges from unexpected mediums.

I don’t expect to get an idea for a story in the middle of a Lindsey Stirling concert, but it has happened more than once. I don’t emerge from a Star Wars movie expecting to wake up the next morning with the desire to write for six hours straight without stopping. But it has happened. I am here. I am writing, after several very long, hard weeks of barely being able to write anything I cared for. Why does this happen?

There is a general saying that you will sometimes find love as soon as you stop looking for it. I’m not going to start a debate about how much weight this actually holds. But this concept actually applies almost perfectly when used in the context of writing and creative expression. Often it is only when you stop “hunting” for something that will inspire you that you become involuntarily inspired.

Of course, there is also the often misunderstood fact that inspiration often relies on action. Let’s say you are not feeling particularly inspired to write. No revolutionary ideas are coming to mind, you don’t feel any kind of flow or creative energy ready to fuel your writing. But you sit down anyway, and you decide to give writing a try. You start. And after writing for a few minutes, suddenly, BOOM. Inspiration hits.

The act of writing is what triggered that feeling of inspiration. It did not come until you gave it something to latch onto. You started telling a story, and your story took that as permission to begin talking to you. Isn’t it amazing how things can turn out that way?

The more we experience, the more we have to work with. I don’t know of a writer who doesn’t also read, or watch at least one TV show, or even listen to music. There are so many different mediums of storytelling available that it is nearly impossible to avoid it. But that’s not why most creators are also consumers. Because without knowing it, many storytellers are inspired most by other people’s stories.

The reason the world’s greatest writers are so often also the most well-read is because both of these activities fuel each other, creating an endless loop of creative curiosity and desire. You read a story that doesn’t expand enough on one particular point, so you go off and start writing about that. Then that inspires you to read more about a different topic that also came up while you were writing, and the cycle just continues.

Experiencing a story, as you know, can come in many forms, and everyone has their own specific preferences for how they absorb different themes and ideas. I have a friend who is very into plays and musicals. I know plenty of others who have seen more movies just in this past year than I might ever see in my lifetime.

You have to be open to the different possibilities stories can show you. And you can’t let yourself give into the fear that you are “stealing” someone else’s idea simply because one story inspired you to write your own. Every story is based in some form or another, taken from or inspired by the same few original stories. In a way, every story you tell is a copy of a copy of a copy of another. You have to make it yours, put your own heart and soul into it, but being inspired by someone’s work does not mean you are taking something from someone else.

This is why I encourage all writers of all skill levels and backgrounds to take in as much “story” on a daily basis as you can. Figuring out how to balance consumption with creation is a discussion for another time, especially since it’s something I am still struggling with in my own creative workflow, but it can be done.

Dive deep into the stories you love. Immerse yourself in them. Dissect them. Take them apart and put them back together again. It’s okay to be critical of something you love — it will not always change the way you think of or look at it. This is essential, in fact, if you are going to turn around and lose yourself in worlds and beings of your own creation.

We must be critical of the stories we experience because as writers, it is literally our job to figure out how to put our own stories together in a way that makes sense. Call it reverse engineering, if you will. Learning how stories work (and sometimes how they don’t work) is the part of a writer’s journey I think many people forget about. You can’t miss this step. You can’t be afraid to analyze, to think, to assess your own opinions.

Even more than that, criticism of other writers’ work is an ideal way to learn the kinds of stories and story elements you personally do and do not like. You are a storyteller with preferences, and you will always lean on your own loose formula in order to construct your material. It’s okay to not like stories with happy endings, for example. There will be times when the story you are writing works better with a happy ending despite your usual distaste for them, but that makes storytelling challenging in a good way.

This is how we learn. This is how we grow.

Plus, spending time with the stories you adore (and even those you don’t) will serve as a constant reminder to you that you love creating, and you love the art of the story. This alone is often enough to inspire creativity. You saw something you liked. You want to replicate the experience of liking a story for someone else. Many someone elses, even.

So enjoy every moment of this ride. It’s unpredictable, it’s dizzying and overwhelming, but in the end, it is worth every twist, every turn, every doubt, every triumph.

This is why we write. Our stories can inspire others to tell stories. And their stories can inspire others to tell stories. And it just goes on and on and on like that, presumably for the rest of time.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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