One of my creative writing teachers taught us never to write based off of an idea because the story would always fail. At first glance, that advice might seem silly. Don’t all stories come from an idea?
What I think he meant was that you can’t have an entire story center around one idea, particularly a moral or political point. One idea is not enough to sustain a story. You need an entire network of them. I don’t know about you guys, but I get antsy when I haven’t been able to write as much as I would like to, so the moment I get an idea, I’m ready to chase it down the rabbit hole. It can be easy to forget about the important pre-writing phase, especially if you tend to be a headlights writer.
In her previous blog, Embracing the Chaos, Madeleine stated that writing begins in the mind. Nothing is more frustrating for me than when my mind won’t cooperate. I want to write, I want to make sense of the smatterings of notions and thoughts and put them together into a coherent idea. I want to take that idea and expand it, analyze it, break it apart, and develop the dozens of other ideas necessary for me to write. But my mind wanders, and sometimes, it just draws a blank.
We’re not machines. Our minds aren’t like the random word generators you can find online, and, unfortunately, we can’t just pull a lever over and over again until we happen to hit the jackpot. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t yet started your story or are already in the thick of it. Every time we sit down to write, we have to start generating ideas. Even if we know where the story is going, there are always the details: What does this person look like? What does the environment look like? What do I want her to say? It never ends. So what do you do when those hot springs of inspiration have run dry?
The first real step is to know yourself. What works for you and, equally as important, what doesn’t? I’ll tell you what works for me and what doesn’t in the hope that it could be helpful to you, but you may be very different from me. This is why it is so very important, that you actively seek out what puts you in the right frame of mind to get the ideas flowing. It’s amazing how easily we self-sabotage ourselves by doing the wrong things even if we desperately want to write.
Unless you are just terrified that you’ll forget your idea, don’t write it down right away. Sometimes when you write down an idea, it becomes set in stone, and it never occurs to you again that you can change it. Let it sit in your mind longer where it is still flexible and you still have room to work with it.
Get Away from the Screen
There’s nothing more uninspiring and distracting than a computer screen. If you’ve got a spaghetti mind like I have, it can be very hard to focus and keep your thoughts from racing from one thing to the next. This makes finding activities that settle your mind all the more important. For me, baths or showers are the best way to get my brain to shut up enough that I can start to really meditate on an idea. Something about the hot water makes all the extraneous, distracting worries, to-do lists, and randomness melt away. Another thing that I have found to work is exercising, whether it is strenuous or not. If you already go the gym, consider that an opportunity to focus your mind. If not, think about stretching or yoga or going on walks, which leads me to my next suggestion: get outside. If your front or back yard isn’t sufficient, go to a park. Spend some time in the air and sunshine. Life is busy, so it’s all about finding those activities that you are already involved in where you can finally think. I live twenty minutes outside of the city of Albuquerque, which makes my driving time the best opportunity for me to start coming up with ideas. I can’t tell you how many things I’ve come up with while driving. So find these quiet moments in your life and take advantage of them.
Something about holding a pen in my hand and pushing the ink against the paper helps my mind to settle and the ideas to flow. It doesn’t really matter what I’m writing or how coherent it is. Actually, my handwriting probably couldn’t get any messier. Whatever the case, it feels more real and tangible, and that helps me to ground my thoughts. If you’re artistic, then doodling or sketching is another great idea.
Find Good Stories
You want to immerse yourself in things that inspire you. Whether that be your favorite TV show, movie, book, or video game. It doesn’t matter. When you experience a good story, it’s exciting, and it can help you start thinking about your own creative process. A lot of people advise against watching TV. I advise against watching bad TV. Some TV shows and movies are absolutely brilliant, so don’t discredit their storytelling. The trick is to be conscious of what you’re watching while thinking about how it tells its story so successfully.
Some people refuse to read other books when writing because it may cause them to steal ideas or unintentionally copy the voice or style of another writer. That is something to be aware of. Obviously, you don’t want to copy things, but I think it is important to see what has been done because it can help you know what you want to accomplish and where you want to start. I like to look at these stories and think about why they work and why I am drawn to them.
Look at Pictures
We have an incredible resource in the internet now. We can look up anything. I love Pinterest for the fact that I am able to create secret boards that no one else can look at made up of whatever I find inspirational. This can be scenery, clothes, food, animals, anything. Then if I need a little boost to help get the ideas going, and can return to these boards and look at them.
I love to have music when I write and when I am in the processing stage. For me, it doesn’t matter if the songs have lyrics or not. I know that some writers prefer instrumental music, but there are some songs out there with lyrics that truly inspire me. Sometimes I hear a song’s lyrics and I am immediately thrown into the mind of one of my characters. Whether you prefer Itunes, Youtube, or something else, spend some time building playlists of the songs that hurl you into your world or into the minds of your characters or that fill you with the inspiration you need to create. Pandora is also a great resource for this. If there’s one song or band that inspires you, plug that into Pandora and see what other music it leads you to.
When you have gotten the ball rolling on your story, spend some time doing research. Whether you want to read a book of a similar genre or look up articles or historical information. Whatever the case may be, you may find something real that sparks something imaginative.
It’s easy to get caught up in the cycle of our lives. So, every now and again, take a moment to look around you. Where are you? What’s happening around you? Is there anything or anyone interesting there? There are stories all around you and sometimes we can take pieces of them with us and shape them into ideas. So try shaking up your routine every now and again. Go to different places. New things can help you to gain new perspectives.
Know What Doesn’t Work
If you find any of the above things distracting and ineffective, then don’t use them. I’ll tell you what doesn’t work for me. The first is alcohol. Wine, beer, mixed drink, whatever. They don’t get my mind in gear and help me come up with ideas, as much as I wish they did! What’s better is a hot drink: coffee, tea, hot coco, cider. For some reason a steamy mug in my hand helps me to focus and get the job done.
What also doesn’t work for me are those programs that don’t let you access Facebook or the internet. I admit I am definitely the kind of person that will want to look something up then get sucked into the internet labyrinth for the next half hour, but this has to be a matter of self-discipline. I’m not very good at forcing myself into things, and if I want to check my Facebook, I will find a way. My phone, for example, is never far away. It’s like forbidden fruit. Knowing I can’t have it, makes me want it more. My suggestion, really, is to work on your self-discipline because you need to develop that as a writer anyway.
Another thing that doesn’t work for me is deadlines. I laugh in the face of deadlines, and everyone I know probably hates me for it. Deadlines stress me out only because I am afraid of disappointing the person holding the deadline. This makes me feel disheartened every time I think about my project and my deadline and how much more work I have to do to catch up. That is the worst way to get yourself in a place where you can come up with ideas.
What else doesn’t work for me? Lists. I hate lists. They make me think of to-do lists, which make me think what I’m doing is more of a chore than an artistic endeavor. They also overwhelm me. The task of generating enough ideas to create an entire story can be daunting. If I am writing a list, it makes me feel like I have to have everything figured out. Here’s a little secret: you don’t. Additionally, not all of your ideas, no matter how good, are going to make it onto the page. The ideas are still worthwhile, and they are probably there in the context or subtext of your story. Having a list makes me feel like I have to check everything off, and that will never be the case.
I also don’t do well with structure. Rituals, organization, and structure work really well for some people, so if it works for you then please go for it. But I think it’s wrong to teach that it’s the only way to be successful. It’s impossible for my life to be structured because I work as a contractor, and every single day is completely different. I love the chaos and the variety, so figure out which works best for you and stick with it.
I hope this blog at least gets you thinking about how you can best approach creativity in your own life. Don’t lose hope if you are struggling to come up with ideas. It’s not a formula, and while that’s why it can be so challenging, I also think that’s why it’s so exciting. Generating ideas and writing will always be a mystery to me, and that is part of why I love it. There is nothing more exciting than the feeling of one idea bursting into dozens or writing those ideas down and watching as they seamlessly flow into a story worth telling. But we have to learn that it’s not always a spontaneous, miraculous phenomenon. Sometimes ideas and inspiration need a patient mind that is willing to quiet down and seek them out.
By Rachelle Clifford