Dear Aliya: Where Do You Find Inspiration To Write?


inspiration.jpg (JPEG Image, 430x306 pixels)

I’m typing this on a flight to Dallas. First time using in-flight Internet. Sweet!

So, this morning, I got a tweet from MissCocoaLuv.


It’s a great question and one I hear often from writers.

I can’t find the time.

I can’t find the space.

I don’t know what to write.

Warning: Harsh words ahead

If  you have a magical space in the attic of your palatial estate with a bubbling brook and tweeting birds outside: wonderful. Write on. If you have hours of free time each day and plenty of money to pay the bills while you wait to be inspired: Awesome! Write on!

If you have publishers waiting with baited breath for the next sentence you crank out and a hungry public already requesting your as-yet-untitled novel on, by all means, take your time. Close your eyes and wait for the muse to take hold and guide your hand to create your literary masterpiece.


There is no such thing as being inspired to write!

If you’re a bricklayer, no one asks, “How do you get inspired to lay those bricks? I just can’t bring myself to pick up a brick and lay it down….and then pick up another brick and lay it down again.”

You pick the brick up, slather on that cement-y stuff and slam it down.

Same thing with writing.

Sit your ass down, put your hands on the keyboard, (or the pen and paper), or whatever. And lay the words down one after the other.

It’s the sit your ass down part that trips people up.

You don’t need to have a novel plotted out in your head to start the writing process. Just sit down. At the kitchen table. On your couch. In bed. Wherever.

Get your writing tools and sit where you will write.

Set how much time you will write per day. Five minutes is not too little.

Can ANY aspiring writer tell me they do NOT have FIVE MINUTES a day to write?

I didn’t think so.

You’re at the kitchen table. You have five minutes. Write something. Don’t know what to write? Write that: I don’t know what to write.

Just sit your butt down and write something–anything–for five minutes. Write down what you see in your kitchen. You see a roach? Awesome. Tell me about it. Describe what you’re wearing. You’re naked? Ooooh, tell me more. Write something you plan on Tweeting later or updating to Facebook. Just write for five minutes. (Or ten, or whatever).

Do this every day.

Oh! You don’t have five minutes a day? Fine. Do this once a week. You don’t have five minutes a week? GTFOH.

Now. After a few sessions of forcing yourself to sit down for a prescribed amount of time, you will decide to write something.

You have two options.

1. Write off the top of your head and see what comes out.

2. Decide what you’re going to write, give yourself a loose outline or mental idea and start writing.

I’ve done both. But the only works of fiction I’ve finished were in the #2 category. That’s not to say writers can’t just go off the top of their head and write masterpieces.

The best piece of writing I’ve ever done was a short story called Bread, Ribs and Hundred Dollar Bills. It was about this guy named Fat Brown who lent his cute, female neighbor a record. (An actual vinyl record.) She didn’t return it. He wanted it back. He snuck into her apartment to get it and got caught. They ended up getting together. And the girl turned out to be really quirky and unusual. And sickly.

The writing was crisp and sharp. The plot moved and the characters were detailed.

I never knew what was going to happen from one day to the next.

I let my then-boyfriend, (now TH), read it. And it was one of the few times, (I think the only time), that he was like, “Yo. That’s hot. Finish it.”

And I didn’t.

I lost the vibe after a few weeks. I didn’t know where the story was going. The characters needed me to make moves and have something happen. I didn’t know what should happen and I didn’t want to stop to outline because I thought that I would lose the magic spark of creating.

But it ended up being an unfinished story.

Sadly, it doesn’t exist anywhere. I saved it to a computer that later crashed. And never backed it up anywhere. Pains me to this day.

So, I don’t go with the first option too often. But if it works for you—fine. I can’t give you advice on how to get motivated if you want to write your story off the top of your head.

The only works of fiction I have actually completed are the ones that started out in my mind as a possible story:

The Teacher’s Room: a novel about me a teacher moonlighting as a journalist. I was teaching at Elizabeth High School at the time and the characters were too rich NOT to write about. I started out just typing the dialogue I heard in the teacher’s room. I renamed some of the teachers and the characters began to form. I wrote an outline of what would happen. And I gave myself a word count for each day. Something really low, like 250 words. That way, if I was blocked, I could still choke out 250 words and accomplish my goal.

Sidebar: In Stephen King’s awesome book: On Writing, he says you have to sit your ass in that chair even when you literally can’t think of one single word to write. You sit there and stare at the screen until your time is up. But you sit there every. single. day. No matter what.

I finished The Teacher’s Room. All publishers rejected it. Boo-hoo.

Moving on.

I wrote a memoir called Dear Summer, about my relationship with TG and her mom.

It started out as a letter I wanted to write to TG, explaining things she might want to know later in life. It was also a diary of sorts for me. There was a time when things were rocky between me and TG’s mom and I needed a place to vent. The vignettes started to form a memoir and I wrote an outline and got started.

I finished Dear Summer. But it felt too personal. And I didn’t make the revisions my agent asked me to make so we could send it out. It still sits in my desk drawer.

And then, I wrote a story for VIBE. And talked to my agent about writing a non-fiction book to pick up where the story left off.

He said no. Make it a novel. Go crazy with it.

Something clicked right there.

I was jogging in Watsessing Park the next morning, listening to Christina Aguilera’s Aint No Other Man on my Ipod and the names of four women popped into my head. I remember chanting their names, which rhymed at the time, as I jogged around the park.

I went home and wrote down the names and characteristics of each woman.

I wrote a loose, very general outline.

And I sat my ass down every day and wrote–something.

Some days, I sat in front of my computer and cried because I didn’t have anything to write and I didn’t want to sit there feeling stupid.

Some days, I wrote for three hours straight.

Some days, I wrote for five hours straight.

And then, I fell off. Wrote the Faith book. Got knocked up. Had a baby. Nursing. Working. Freelancing. Traveling.

But the book was always in my mind. I didn’t need to be inspired. I needed to start laying down my bricks.

And I did.

And I finished it.

And August 1, 2010, y’all can read my novel No Tea For The Fever as-yet-untitled.

Sidebar: I handed in a revision to my editor last week. She emailed me late last night with her notes. And I was devastated. I made changes she hated. I changed characters that she wants changed back: stat. I added plot points she’s not feeling. Took out some she loved. She pointed out all the flaws I knew were there as I was writing.

In general, she tore me a new one.

And every word in that loooooooooooooong email made sense. And will make the book a better read.

So when I thank Sulay Hernandez in the credits of this book—understand that she deserves it. For real. She is turning me inside out, slow-roasting me and torturing me. All in a good way.

I digress. And getting a little wordy, too. Apologies! You’d think I’d quit blogging and then suddenly had a change of heart and felt stupid and decided to just delete my cheesy farewell blog post and hope no one remembers that I ever got all dramatic and had a big old Jay-Z style farewell show with people shouting Aliya! Aliya! Aliya! while I waved a hand dramatically and shut down my computer….

So, back to MissCocoaLuv and looking for inspiration:

As far as I know, you don’t find inspiration. Don’t even think about writing as something you need to be inspired to do.

Sure, music can get your juices flowing. And a week away from the world in a cabin all to yourself can be inspiring.

I’m on my way right now to the La Posada de Santa Fe Resort and Spa in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’ll be getting chili-chocolate body wraps, taking cooking lessons, touring the art scene in Santa Fe and not changing diapers or twisting hair.

So yeah, I’ll be inspired to attack Sulay’s edits, which are being overnighted to the resort as I type this.

But I can’t wait for an editor to assign me a travel story to get inspired to write. And neither can you.

I can’t wait for anything. And neither can you.

You don’t wait for inspiration to eat, make love, bathe, kiss your child, go to work, clean the toilet* or send an email.

You just do it.

So just write, already.

Five minutes. Starting tomorrow.

Can you do it? Do you want to do it? What’s stopping you?

As always, I’d love to hear from you…

*okay. I do need some inspiration for this task. In the form of a phone call to Merry Maids.

P.S. I was looking for this quote about writing that I love. But I couldn’t find it. I did, however, stumble upon this blog. This post was exactly what I needed to read today.

20 Responses to “Dear Aliya: Where Do You Find Inspiration To Write?”

  1. Miss Cocoa Luv Says:

    :) you answered the question and then some. Thanks!

  2. aqua Says:

    I knew I kept your blog in my Google Reader subscriptions for a reason.
    Miss Cocoa Luv, there are 24 hrs in a day. May not seem like it but that is a LOT of time for you to do what you want to do. No excuses. Just make it happen.

  3. Katura Says:

    Love it. How’s that for critical feedback on your welcome-back-even-though-you-really-never-left blog post?

    Half way through reading, I checked the URL to see if it was the No Tea or ASK site.

    Aliya! Aliya! Aliya!

  4. Dylan Says:

    This is up on my wall: “First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.”
    — Octavia E. Butler

  5. Jeunee Says:

    This spoke to me. I have 3 different works that I’ve started and still lay unfinished..because..who knows. I go home and sit, but don’t write…dull my creative juices movies and see other people’s work come to fruition…while mine dust gathers on mine.

    So. Tomorrow. I have a flight and a 1.5 hour layover. And I will sit my butt down in an uncomfortable seat in the middle of a crowded airport…and with my bags under my legs (cause i don’t play)…I will write.
    Even if its crap…and even if its the beginning of something else…
    I do have a question, though…these stories began as vivid ideas to me…but they seem to be hiding. Do the stories ever leave you? Do they have an expiration date? Are my stories coddled?

    ha funny…but a genuine fear…

  6. Jeunee Says:

    …so. lets replace coddled with curdled…shall we? :)

  7. asking Says:

    very nice aliya… i needed to reead these very words today

  8. Haftime Says:

    Worst. Retirement. Ever!

  9. Jackie H. Says:

    knew u’d be back…u didn’t fake me out…welcome:)

  10. Mignon Says:

    This is what I needed to see today. I’m sitting right now trying to churn out some writing that’s on deadline for today with NO.INSPIRATION. The subject made sense a few days ago and I was geeked about writing it. Now, I just want to close this laptop and curl in bed with my benadryl, kleneex, hot tea and Soul Food: The Series DVD (I have a cold.)

    But instead, I will “sit my ass down and write.” And I will do that until it’s done. I wasn’t inspired to write this comment, yet I did. I am hoping this sit down and write thing will translate over in Word, lol.

    PS.. I’mo go ‘head and act like you didn’t retire (even though I know you did). Although, Jay-Z retired and came back better than ever it’s said. I’m just saying…

  11. Val Says: is not dead!

  12. Val Says:

    and PLEASE bring back Yay or Nay Fashion Fridays…Love it!

  13. paul cantor Says:

    thank you

  14. Karen Says:

    Well sis, that was a great read, and apropos as I’m sitting at my kitchen table at 10:35 pm on a Wednesday night after having awaked at 6 am to write, then go to the job then back her. The writing journey will change you, for the better hopefully. Humbles for sure. The faith required . . . whoooo. Anyway, I love the title No Tea For the Fever, and I’m sure whatever else it is supposed to be named will be awesome too. There is a book that helps me immensely, Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. There is also a great Q&A with Jonathan Karp of Twelve publishing on Again, really enjoyed the post.

  15. Sheena Says:

    Words cannot express how excited I am about your “Encore”.

    I recently stumbled upon your blog and secretly wished that you’d decide to come back and bless the blog with more posts.

    Welcome back and I look forward to becoming a part of the community.


  16. Living Fly on a Dime Says:

    Thank you so much for this post Aliya. After being laid off from a mag job a year ago, I’m FINALLY on a daily writing schedule.

  17. Brow Betty Says:

    Hi I’m stopping by from a new blogging network geared towards women of color. You have a great blog and it’s exactly what you we are looking for in our members. If you have a moment please stop by, check out our site, and sign up for the directory.

    Everything is FREE, and if you join before November 1 we are holding a contest for 1 of our member to receive 2 months of free advertising on our site. So please stop by we would love to have you.

  18. dkwatts Says:

    I heard somewhere you stopped updating

    I go to Google Reader to find out why you shut down my *fav* blog, and see the best words I’ve read all week:

    “Error 404 – Not Found” :-)

  19. Aliya S. King Says:

    @dkwatts: ;)

  20. chrisanthemum7 Says:

    I stumbled on this blog following some late night internet trail on Mariah (lamb!) and I’m really floored by how much information there is on the writing/journalism industry on your blog. Forgive me if you’ve already answered this, but it’s sort of a life ambition of mine to interview artists of all kinds for a living [or hell, just for fun]. How, and where, would I physically start something like that? Even if it’s a matter of paying dues, I seriously need to know so I can get started in my city. Enough with being uninformed.


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