Among the many topics frequently discussed by writing groups is the topic of writer's block. How can a writer who feels stuck in the writing process jumpstart her creative writing engine and get back to work? What are some ways, for instance, to generate ideas? How do you get past passages in your work that have you stuck? How can you inspire yourself to push forward when you don't know what's next? Well, if I knew any definitive answers to all these questions, I would have a lot more creative writing to show for myself. But I will pass on some tips other people have shared with me about how to jumpstart the creative writing process. I will break these into two categories: How to find ideas and how to get past a rough patch.
Jumpstarting the idea generator
- Look around you. Many writers I know are never at a loss for ideas. In fact, they sometimes complain about having too many ideas demanding their attention at the same time. But if you are having a problem finding ideas to write about, my best advice is to look around you. What do you find interesting, beautiful, ugly, scary? Can these things be turned into stories, poems, drama or literary non-fiction? What about your daily life? Are there events that seem mundane but which, on closer inspection, carry significance? What about people you see? Can you imagine who that man is meeting, what that woman has in her suitcase, how long that couple will stay together? The everyday world provides all sorts of potential inspirations. Sometimes, you just have to focus in on something and sit down and do a brainstorming exercise--write about what it looks like, how it makes you feel, what it reminds you of--and see where this leads you. It may be your next project, or it may simply get you in the right frame of mind to write.
Focus. Like I said, I know a lot of writers who have plenty of ideas that compete for their attention. Sometimes having too many ideas is like having no ideas at all. Where do you start? How do you focus? And of all these "ideas"--is any one of them suitable for a real piece of writing?
One thing to do if you find yourself without a real, major idea because you're flooded by little ideas, is to force yourself to focus. Pick one idea, one thing that interests you, and force yourself to brainstorm about it, and only it, for a whole day, or even longer. This will give you a chance to see if that idea has legs to stand on or was just maybe a fleeting thought that can't really translate into anything further. For instance, say you're hit by the idea "clowns go to a class reunion." You may spend a day or a week plotting that out as a short story only to find it doesn't really lead anywhere. Or, you may find that it has tons of potential and that your brainstorming is almost the full outline for your story. Focus, keep those other side ideas at bay, and see what happens.
Imitate your favorites. From musicians trying to play along with John Coltrane solos to painters using impressionism to be more like Monet, artists imitating favorite artists is a time-honored way to learn and be inspired. I don't mean plagiarizing, of course; I mean finding writing that inspires you --whether in content, in style, in theme--and using this work to generate your own ideas. Do a homemade exercise where you try to write sparsely like Hemingway or with a lot of description like Toni Morrison. Or try some magical realism. This work may never be more than good practice writing, but often, ripping off or riffing on a favorite can inspire your next great idea.
Jumpstarting to the next page
- Remember your point. Sometimes writing a complete draft can take so much time that we get to a passage where we have completely forgotten why we started writing this thing anyway. One technique for getting past a spot that has you stuck in a work is to go back to your main point --what you wanted to do, to say, to explore, to describe. Why are you working on this piece? Remember that, and it may re-inspire you and provide enough momentum to get you through whatever has you stalled.
- Remember your character's point. If you're writing a play, novel, short story or some other kind of work featuring a character, you may be stalled because you have forgotten what your character is doing. It's easy to get distracted by side plots, description, or other story elements to the point that they bog you down. Getting unbogged can sometimes simply require saying to yourself, "This is what my character is supposed to be pursuing," and then getting her back in that pursuit instead of hanging around the coffee shop chatting.
- Kill some kids. Sometimes, writing can get stuck because you insist on fitting that beloved passage into a piece of work where it doesn't really belong. If you're very stuck in your writing, take a step back and see if it's because you are married to something that is making your plot go awry, that is inconsistent with your style or theme, or that just plain doesn't work--as much as you love it. One way to jumpstart your creativity is to force yourself to be creative by coming up with something other than your dearly held ideas. Remember the old adage about killing your "darlings"--if you can write something you like once, you'll be able to do it again.
- Get some distance. Another way to jumpstart creativity when you're stuck is to give yourself some distance so you can see the forest for the trees again, or even so you can work something through subconsciously. When we spend a lot of time on one scene, one passage, one stanza, we can start to lose the important big picture perspective that we need to get through to the other side. Sometimes, stepping away from the work briefly is a good cure for being blocked.
Creative writing is tough when the creativity part isn't forthcoming. Part of being a writer is learning to get past the blocks and back to the rewarding work that finishing a creative product entails. It may not be easy, but when you finally get to write "the end," you'll be glad you didn't give up.