By H. P. Oliver

On those rare occasions when I encounter someone who is actually impressed by the fact that I am a writer, the impressee inevitably asks, "Where do you get the ideas for your books?"

Being an honest soul at heart, I typically answer, "I steal them from life."

That response is usually met with an understanding nod followed by a change of subject. Of course, they don't really understand, but that's to be expected. Readers are predisposed to accept the idea that inspiration is a deep and mysterious spell under which we writers fall just before coming up with a brilliant plot for our next project.

Unfortunately, many aspiring writers start out as readers, and thus have difficulty ridding themselves of the idea that inspiration is mysterious and elusive. Some even spend endless hours in contemplation, hoping to discover the Jedi-like force that bestows amazingly wonderful plot ideas upon the worthy. The truth of the matter is those endless hours would be better spent sharpening pencils because there is really very little mystery to inspiration.

As it applies to writing fiction, inspiration is simply the mental process through which the memory of a personal experience spawns the idea for a story. The keyword here is "experience." That experience might be something you witnessed a split-second ago or a memory from your childhood. It may be as simple as something you read or a place you've seen, or it can be as complex as a traumatic incident in which you were personally involved. The experience can be a mental picture, the memory of a conversation, or even a scent that struck you as unusually pleasing or distasteful. The only rule is that the experience must exist in your mind.

"Yes," some may be asking, "but how do you turn the mental process of inspiration on?" For most experienced writers a more apropos question is how do you turn inspiration off?

Inspiration is an automatic byproduct of imagination: You remember an experience and imagine a story based on the memory. If you were born with the right level of imagination and you've given it free rein, the inspiration process is at work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. In fact, some writers are plagued with more story ideas than they can ever possibly use, which turns inspiration into the challenge of selecting the plots and situations readers will find most compelling.

Did you catch the part about being born with the right level of imagination? That statement points to the only real mystery associated with inspiration. Think of human imagination depicted on a meter. At the far right of the meter we have a high level of imagination that completely obscures reality. At the left end of our meter we encounter the obsessive need for rules to establish an absolutely consistent reality totally devoid of spontaneity. As you might expect, these extreme ends of our meter are red zones indicating the inability to function most commonly referred to as insanity.

Here's our imaginary imagination meter. If it were actually possible to measure the type of imagination required for artistic creativity, would it help us find the next best-selling author? Maybe, but I'm not sure we need to be in a big hurry to answer that question.

Those whose imagination levels fall to the left of center on our meter are generally best suited for accounting and technical fields where precision and consistency are prized above all else. Folks with imagination levels to right of center are typically those who excel in the arts, like sculptors, painters, musicians, and writers. And the further to the right the needle points, the more likely we are to encounter those who straddle the thin line between genius and insanity--the likes of Edger Allan Poe and Vincent Van Gogh.

So the only mystery associated with inspiration has to do with what ripples in the gene pool determine where we end up on the imagination meter. Science may be able to explain that phenomenon some day, but it doesn't much matter for the purposes of this inspiration discussion. You were either born with an artist's imagination or you weren't, unless . . . .

Yes, there is an "unless." It encompasses those who may possess an artist's level of imagination, but have been taught to keep that imagination bottled up; never giving it the free rein it needs to become a catalyst for the inspiration process. Acknowledging the existence of this condition raises two questions: How do you know if you suffer from artificial limitations to your imagination, and if you do, is it possible to retrain your mind so as to grant your imagination greater freedom?

With the asking of those questions this article is now officially trespassing into the realm of the behavioral psychologist, which I most certainly am not. That being the case, I will end this here, satisfied with having offered a working explanation of the inspiration process and how it gives writers the ideas that become our stories.

May the inspiration be with you!