More like this

What I Wish I’d Known is a regular series where we ask some of our favourite people in the book industry to reflect on their careers. In this instalment, writers share some of the unexpected and useful things they’ve learned along the way about sparking creativity, generating ideas and overcoming writer’s block.

Top row, left to right: Ruby Todd, Katherine Brabon, Ouyang Yu, Sam Elkin, Kirsty Iltners, Andy Jackson and Laura McPhee-Browne. Bottom row, left to right: Miranda Darling, Kgshak Akec, Omar Musa, Aisling Smith and Biffy James.

Kgshak Akec – Hopeless Kingdom

I write in various forms including theatre, poetry and essay. Each one takes a different shape and transports me to a different world—or more like different parts of this world and the people in it, past and present. But writing fiction, stringing together words on a page for a novel, is a completely unique experience—and one that, for me, must be done in complete solitude.

Something I’ve learned is knowing when to walk away. Knowing when to put my pen down or to stop typing and come back to it another day—because the words will find you, they always do. I’ve found that at times when I’ve been stuck, when the words aren’t flowing whilst in this state of cerebral hibernation, and I’ve given myself the permission to walk away from my writing, there’s this inevitable fear that comes with submitting to the unknown. But when I do let go and step outside of whatever I am writing, I open myself up to the world, and there’s a conversation, a smell, a train ride, something that sparks that inspiration. Trust yourself as a writer, trust the process and trust the story. I love going on nature walks, visiting my mother, hanging out with my sisters. I love reminiscing about our shared childhood; hindsight is also a gift that keeps on giving.

Every piece of writing is a different journey. Sometimes I feel like the story comes to me, and other times it feels like it’s a game of hide and seek. Through all this, it’s my belief that the story chooses the writer. Trust in that and trust in you.

Katherine Brabon – Body Friend

I’ve learnt that in the life of a creative project, the feeling of being inspired will always have its counterpart in those days when you’re simply showing up, tired of it or full of doubt. I think, like many, I’m sceptical of the phrase ‘writer’s block’. Rather, I see that there’s always a challenge in finding a balance between taking a necessary break from creative work—a fallow period—and pushing through necessary obstacles to get closer to your vision for it.

The more I write, the more I learn what helps. For me, there’s an essential relation between reading and writing. If I’m not reading much, then I am not as engaged or immersed as a writer. Reading poetry in particular is a way to remind me of the texture, depth, rhythm of words—it makes me inspired to use them. Also, I’ve noticed that writing by hand and keeping notebooksand more recently, staying away from the laptop for as long as possibleis when I feel closest to the initial inspiration and more connected to the work.

Miranda Darling – Thunderhead

I’ve always had a very intense and specific relationship with inspiration. I am a devourer of the world. Fiction, poetry, biographies, music, films, art. I gorge on nature, I eavesdrop, I walk for miles, I quest, I keep notebooks. You can think of me as a whale shark, filtering oceans, funnelling universes down to limpid, lucid pages. I am never ‘on holiday’ from my brain but also I am often not at my desk: I am participating in the world while watching from the sidelines.

Where I am up to in the writing process—gleaning thoughts and visions, weaving elements into a manuscript, or razor-blading my text to fewer and fewer words—will determine whether I am hunting like a raptor or drifting with a head and heart open wide, collecting impressions. My notebooks are full of quotes, thoughts, snippets of imagined conversation and eavesdroppings. If I ever feel jammed, I open them at random and kick-start my thinking by reading a few prompts. If I am more deeply stuck, I work with my hands: I might sew, work with clay, draw. I find the hands have an intelligence of their own that can circumvent barriers the brain might erect. Mostly it is about protecting space and time and oxygen for things to catch alight. Don’t pre-judge your words—get it all on the page; there will be time for slashing, refining and burning later. Also, be the iceberg: you don’t have to show everything you know; there is power in the submerged, what lies beneath, what is only inferred or hinted at…

Sam Elkin – Detachable Penis

I grew up in a family where it wasn’t okay to express emotions. Hence, I’m a bit stunted in that area. So, my ideas for personal essays start with me trying to identify how I am feeling about a situation and what that emotion is trying to signal to me about how I should be living my life. That’s generally where my creative inspiration begins.

Maintaining the necessary patience and dedication for turning early drafts into polished essays that might be of interest to anyone other than my counsellor is much harder. To keep at it, I’ve got to eventually turn away from myself and look at what broader implications my line of enquiry has for society at large.

I also desperately need a deadline. That’s why I submit to literary journals and writing contests. Even if my work isn’t selected, I’ve still got a decent draft to keep working on, which might either be published elsewhere or one day form the spine of a full-length work.

Andy Jackson – Human Looking

For too much of my writing life, I’ve either thought that poems only come from language-lightning strikes or from hard work in the name of ‘continuous improvement’. Both ideas are counterproductive.

What helps is that inspiration, literally, is breathing in. It’s continuous and autonomic. That flash of wing, that graffitied billboard, that scent-triggered memory, that poetic slip of the tongue, it’s all there. All it takes is to be awake (even if you’re tired).

Breath can also be attended to. We can slow down, inhabit the breath, notice how air circulates through a room, a community, a world. Writing comes from here.

Kirsty Iltners – Depth of Field

Inspiration is only part of the process and needs to be built upon. It’s important for me to be able to connect to the purpose of the story beyond just an interesting plot—there always needs to be a deeper reason for why I am writing and what I am trying to say.

If I’m ever struggling to connect to the purpose or am stuck on a particular aspect of the book, I’ll open a new document and write questions to myself, basically playing devil’s advocate. I use it to float new ideas (and often reject them) and ensure the characters are acting in ways that are authentic. I continue to question each answer and force myself to justify every creative decision until I gain enough clarity to move forward. I find this particularly helpful at the beginning of a project to orient myself, but it is something I do regularly throughout the writing process.

Biffy James – Completely Normal (and Other Lies)

You know those magical and rare times when the most perfect idea or the most perfect solution to a plot problem just wanders into your head fully formed? I wish I had known that only happens at the most inconvenient times in the world. Ninety-two per cent of the time (a totally made-up statistic), it’s just as I’m about to fall asleep. I’m all cosy and warm and about to drift off, and then, out of nowhere, it’s there. And I know I should absolutely write down whatever it is then and there, but I’m just too cosy, and so I tell myself that it’s fine, go to sleep, and you’ll remember the whole thing tomorrow. And I am lying. I never remember! Ever!

Luckily, I am just about to buy a brand new beautiful notebook to keep on my bedside table, which will obviously solve this problem, because, as everyone knows, that’s what beautiful notebooks do.

Laura McPhee-Browne – Little Plum

For me, writing is an act of acceptance. I accept each day that my creative inspiration is here or far away, that it’s always moving—if it’s gone, it will come again. I don’t push it, because I have the freedom to take my time, and if I don’t have that freedom—a deadline, self-inflicted urgency—then I read the work of others, mainly poetry, to help me feel like a writer in my body again.

Omar Musa – The Fullness (album available on all streaming services)

The Bornean visual artist and thinker Yee I-Lann, who is one of my mentors, will often say she’s going into the studio to ‘play’, not work. Probably because of that, she’s one of the hardest-working people I know. Her subject matter is not frivolous—decolonialisation, statehood and statelessness, Indigenous self-determination and feminism—but that word ‘play’ always sticks out. I now see that being playful is a crucial element of finding creative inspiration and traversing new territory—exploring ideas in a joyful way, even if they’re dangerous; relishing the risk, the uncertainty of trial and error, attaining a cognitive dissonance that what you’re doing is whimsy when potentially it’s high stakes indeed. Maybe even a matter of life and death.

But how? How to be playful and full of joy when your bank account is at $20 and the electricity bill is at $30 and your neighbour’s dog has taken a dump in your yard and you’re watching a screenful of genocide? For me, a couple of things seem to work. I find it useful to always have a few things on the go. Bolaño said try to write three short stories at once, and if not three—four, if not four—five! When I come to an impasse with The Great Opus™, I can tinker with a side project and it gives my brain time to fallow and come back refreshed or, more often than not, because the ‘side project’ is less pressurised, it gets a life of its own because its origins were more liberated. I can’t quite explain it, but some of this is about consciously figuring out how to let the unconscious mind do its work. Exercise helps me, as does being sober (but hey, the exact opposite might work for you—more power to ya). Finding a community of inspiring artists is important too, so that your ideas have brains and hearts to bounce off. It’s about making space—sometimes a sliver, sometimes a canyon. I suspect that having a day job is probably the best way forward so that your art-making time can be sacred and distilled, and that has proved true for me in the past, but somehow, I keep falling back into the vortex of being a full-time artist and asking myself the same old question—how do I keep it playful? I try to remember that at its best, it’s about love. Play on, my friends—read lots, check out heaps of art, breathe deep and summon up the bravery to fuck up and then dust yourself off and do it all again.

Aisling Smith – After the Rain

The capacity to tap into creative inspiration is linked to your emotional state but not always in the way that you’d think. You don’t write much when you’re happy is the cliché. And for myself, it’s true that heartache has sometimes allowed the words to pour out of me—while at other times it has simply locked me inside my own head. In this sense, the ‘tortured poet’ cliché isn’t always accurate, and you might go through a difficult period with very little inspiration arising from it. It was disappointing for me to realise and accept that not every painful situation will result in a poignant new poem or story.

At times when I’m feeling blocked, tapping into other forms of creative expression often helps reinspire my writing. I’ve usually gone to the dance studio, put on music and started to choreograph a routine instead of pushing on when the words are not flowing. Temporarily opting for a different creative field somehow takes me out of my head, quietens the self-criticism that writers’ block creates for me and acts as a palate cleanser. When I return to the desk afterwards, the words generally start to pitter-patter back to me.

Ruby Todd – Bright Objects

Inspiration lends the world a heightened charge and then leaves you bereft when it fades. Amid the inevitable ebb and flow of the creative process, it can help immensely to experiment with creating the kinds of atmospheric conditions that make inspiration more likely to arrive. For me, this includes:

  • writing to repetitive instrumental music
  • writing on trains
  • visiting galleries for the concrete immediacy of visual art, and challenging myself to evoke paintings and sculptures in words
  • burning essential oils that evoke a particular feeling
  • making time for sensory immersion in the natural world, which never fails to lead me back to words

There are also practical techniques like returning to favourite writers to be re-enchanted by their sentences, researching real events through the news and non-fiction reading in disciplines of interest, and drawing from the incredible diversity of real human characters in daily life. Like invisible signals that remain mysterious, these practices have helped me to access inspiration innumerable times. I’ve also found that the habituation that develops from returning to the same techniques helps to quell the restless anxiety that can be a part of many kinds of creative work.

Ouyang Yu – The White Cockatoo Flowers

There’s probably nothing I’d wish I’d known about that. Honestly, I don’t rely on inspiration to do my writing because I live my writing, which means I am my writing itself, and which is also why things come to me of their own accord. All you need to do is grab hold of them whichever way you can, putting them down on a piece of paper in longhand or speaking into your mobile phone with the speech recognition app on, wherever you are, out walking, on board an airplane or ship, or even while driving, if you know how. Put down a single word and go from there. It will grow into a novel. And I did one like that.

Anything is possible if you are willing to put yourself in it wholeheartedly. You don’t rely on inspiration alone. There are many other things you need to do, like what I said above.