On Writing

The Writing’s on the Wall

Or, as the case may be, in the song, in a perfectly brewed cup of chamomile tea, in your dreams . . . Literally, anywhere.

A while back, the topic of discussion for Paper Cuts, our monthly writers’ group, was inspiration. Our conversation got me thinking about ways to maximize or play to your different sources of inspiration. I’ve put together a short list below, but since, as I’ve noted above, inspiration can come from almost anywhere or anything, feel free to note your specific sources in the comments and I’ll suggest some ways to make that work for you and your writing. Note that all of these are also good tactics for battling the beast known as “writer’s block.” However, keep in mind that your triggers shouldn’t be a distraction from your writing; if you find that you’re spending too much time setting the mood and not enough actually getting down to business, then your source of “inspiration” is really just a procrastination strategy and you should let it go.

  • Music. If, like me, you’re inspired by music, then why not listen to music while writing? Put on a record, create playlists to accompany your work, or just allow some ambient music to play in the background. Going to a concert, orchestra, symphony, or other musical event is another way to tap into your source.
  • Atmosphere. If you find that there’s a certain type of atmosphere that’s conducive to your writing, then create that environment for yourself or seek out that ideal writing space (library, coffee shop, etc.). If you need a cup of coffee or tea in your favorite mug, a glass of bourbon, candles, certain smells, a particular writing implement, absolute quiet, a blanket, whatever it may be to get you ready to write, then make it happen.
  • Dreams. If you’ve ever woke up from a dream thinking, “That would make a great/weird/cool story,” or if you often find yourself getting ideas from dreams you’ve had, then try keeping a dream journal. As soon as you wake up, jot down all of the details you can remember from any dreams you’ve had so that you can use those notes to generate future content.
  • Nature. I often find that going for a walk in my favorite nature preserve/park stirs up new ideas and images for me. If you’re also inspired by nature, then do your writing outdoors or choose a spot facing a window with a view. If, like me, you’ve got a particular place with which you feel a connection, then go spend some time there and see what comes up for you.
  • Images. Put up pictures or artwork in the space where you write so that those visual cues are prominently displayed where you can see them as you work. Alternatively, go to a museum or art gallery or watch a film that you find inspiring.
  • The Zone. If you’re inspired when in “the zone,” then try meditating on your project before getting to work to help you get into that highly creative space and tap into your subconscious. You can also do some automatic writing to see what ideas flow up from beneath the surface.

Again, these are just a few strategies that come to mind for me. I welcome your thoughts to build upon this list.

On Writing

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)

Anxiety and focus issues are some serious super creeps known to plague writers. If you’re haunted by such ghouls, then you may find yourself spending a lot of time staring at the horror that is a blank page or screen or over-preparing for the battle instead of heeding the call to action (i.e., getting caught up in things like researching, outlining, or character sketches instead of writing the actual story). You might sit down to write and have every intention of doing so, but some nasty little troll has other ideas and you end up chasing it in an endless time loop of distractions like checking social media, texting a friend, surfing the web, or drawing pictures that have nothing to do with your writing project. If any of that sounds familiar, then I empathize, fellow ink-slinger, because, unfortunately, I know all too well what’s it like to battle those Big Bads. Here are a few tips I’ve collated from my own experience in the fight.

Break It Up

If you struggle to stay focused (and I wouldn’t be shocked if the majority of people do given that the average attention span is a matter of seconds), then try building in more shorter writing intervals with breaks in between instead of fewer extended sessions.  If your goal is to write a certain number of words or pages per day, you certainly don’t have to write them all in one go.  Breaks will allow your brain to hit the reset button and hopefully you’ll be able to approach a project with renewed focus. If your brain is rested, it can also come up with fresh ideas.

Go Dark

If you’ve been staring at a blank page or screen, then try going dark. Turn off the computer screen and type away, even if you’re just banging out a string of nonsense letters, or close your eyes, pick up your pen, and do some automatic writing (ie, writing whatever comes into your mind). This is a fantastic way of unlocking your subconscious mind and letting it roam free as well as experimenting with letting go period. I realize that for someone with anxiety, that may sound terrifying; you need structure, you have to have a plan! There’s nothing wrong with an outline or plan, but you have to allow at least some room for flexibility because the creative process is by its very nature free-flowing. Start by trying just a few minutes of being like water; see how it goes. You might be surprised by what comes up when you do. I’ve found that this tactic often leads to some of my best ideas/work.

Daydream

If you’re losing interest in what you’re working on, then instead of forcing yourself to plow away at it, why not embrace the boredom? Boredom actually sparks creativity, so go ahead: imagine a place or that you’re some other person and let your mind wander, do a “what if?” exercise, or write in your journal. Sometimes distraction can actually be a good thing.

Get Reacquainted With Your Muse

Maybe you’re stuck for ideas because you’ve lost sight of your purpose. What was it that inspired you to write this project in the first place? Thinking about that, reminding yourself how you feel about that person/place/thing and why you wanted to write about it might be just the thing to spark renewed interest.

Work on Something Else

If you’re stuck sorting things out with a particular project or have lost interest, then work on something else for a while. It’s OK to take a break (as long as it’s not permanent or you don’t completely trash what you’ve been working on). Working on something different will get your creativity going again and might just help you figure out where to pick up the thread with your other project.

These are just a few ideas to try if you get stuck. Ultimately, you’ll need to explore what’s driving your anxiety or focus issues in the first place. What’s the root cause? Once you figure that out, you have a responsibility to yourself to take the necessary steps to manage it. If you can’t do that on your own, that’s OK; Buffy was the Slayer and she had a Watcher (well, two at one point) and the Scooby Gang helping her fight the Big Bad every week. We’re not superheroes, so we’ll likely need a lot more back-up to win the fight.

On Writing

Every Day I Write the Book

"Sometimes you have to go on when you don't feel like it and sometimes you're doing good work when it feels like all you're managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position."
— Stephen King, On Writing

The two biggest things that seem to stop writers from actually writing are lack of time and “writer’s block.” The only way you beat those things is by picking up a shovel, but that’s often easier said than done.

Regarding lack of time, it’s a reality that many writers don’t have the luxury of just sitting at home and scribbling or typing all day because they’ve got a different job that actually pays the bills. When you spend 8 to 12 hours a day working your “day” job, not to mention family and other obligations you may have, finding time to devote to your craft can certainly be difficult. That doesn’t mean that you can’t do it. If you feel called to write, if it’s in your blood to tell a story, then you have to make time for it even if you devote only 30 minutes a day to doing so. Examine your schedule and habits. Be flexible. Could you write on your lunch break or in the waiting room of the doctor’s office or while you’re waiting to drop off/pick up the kids? Think about how much time you spend on social media every day; is that time that could be better spent writing? Writing is just like any other job—you have to put in the time and effort in order to see results. If you carve out the time to do it regularly, then it’ll become a habit. Ideas will start coming to you like little sparks and those sparks of inspiration will ultimately fuel your creative fire.

Aside from a lack of time, one of the most common complaints I hear from writers is that they either have a lack of motivation to actually sit down and write or they’re just not sure where to begin when they do. This so-called writer’s block is really fear or anxiety and the only way you’re going to conquer that fear is by—you guessed it, facing it (find some suggestions on how to do that here).

Are you overly concerned about correctness? Holding yourself to an unrealistic standard of magically getting it right on the first pass? If that’s the case, then you have to find ways to turn off your inner critic/editor because creativity is unrestrained. If you can’t do that, you’ll find yourself constantly getting stuck on things that don’t matter at the moment, never finish a project, and never be happy with what you write. Unfortunately, many writers tend to forget that the creative process is just that—a process. For perfectionists or those who have worked as editors, it can be particularly hard to just pick up the shovel and get to work. As someone who has made a living editing other people’s writing, I get it; I struggled with that for a long time. You get so concerned with fixing things that you forget that this is only your first draft. You don’t have to get anything right at this point. In fact, you can make a complete mess of things and that’s totally OK because you have that awesome gift called revision. You can take all the time you want to improve things later. For now, just accept that you’re going to be wading through a whole lot of shit.

What if you’re just not feeling it? Well, then consider what inspires you. Whether it’s something you need to do or an atmosphere you need to create, make it happen. There are going to be some days, however, when you do all those little rituals that get you in the mood to write and you still don’t feel like doing it. Those are the times when it’s most important to hold yourself accountable and do it anyway. Write something, anything, even if you’re just writing what you think about a particular scene or part, making notes to yourself, interviewing a character, or writing something else entirely. If you keep at it for long enough, you’ll spark an idea and that little a-ha moment is all you need. The point is, you’re not going to get there if you never pick up the shovel and get to work. Like Andy Dufresne, you’ve got to crawl through the river of shit in order to come out clean on the other side. If you’re finding it hard to trust that process and need someone to help you, I’m here.