At long last, I’m back from another hiatus, all settled into my new apartment. And I’m aching to write. To that end, this last post in collaboration with the Ice Colony podcast feels pretty relevant as I start new projects and finish the old. No matter how good a writer you are, when you can’t get started or don’t know what to write, it’s difficult to produce anything of quality. The struggle with writer’s block is real, and something every writer I know has experienced. But there are things you can do to mitigate it. For authors, poets, and anyone else short on inspiration, here’s what works for me—
Journal prompts: Journal prompts, which you can find ALL OVER the web and on Pinterest, on a variety of topics, are a great way to get yourself writing when you don’t know where to start. I think it’s a helpful starting point to do one every morning. For anyone who doesn’t know what a journal prompt is and can’t figure it out (?), it’s just a creative / not fact-based question that you answer (ie. What is your best memory? What do you believe happens after death? What Disney character would you marry? Which one would you sleep with???). It’s also a great way to develop stories and fictional characters. Also really useful in understanding and expressing yourself, or in finding inspiration for creative non-fiction.
Lists: I absolutely fucking love lists. In every area of my life. I even have fun making grocery lists. They’re incredibly useful in developing your ideas, especially when you’re feeling stuck or having trouble with writer’s block. Start by making a list of lists to make. Pick one and run with it. It’s actually fun. For fiction writing, you might write a list of motifs and imagery to include in your story, or some of your character’s favorite things. Creative non-fiction, a list of topics you’d like to explore in further detail might give you an idea for an essay. Or if you’re bored, just make a list of your favorite songs, or things that make you happy. Even those kinds of lists can give you an idea to use in your art.
Mood boards: This is one of my favorite ways to flesh out a character or story idea. I prefer a physical mood board—I have a book full of boards with various themes, made up of photos from all over the internet, magazines, and other random sources. I also fill the giant pages with writing and quotes about whatever or whoever I’m trying to get a better feel for. I write very visual stories, so it’s helpful plotting out exactly how I picture the setting and imagery. This could also be very helpful for visual artists, or even for making changes in your own life. Admittedly, I feel like an obnoxious hipster whenever I say “mood board”, but it’s worth the slight shame. Very useful, and lots of fun.
Automatic writing: Grab a pen and a piece of paper, a computer, even a smartphone. Then just write. Even if it sucks; keep going, and don’t edit it or filter yourself until after. Do not pick up the pen. Try to keep writing for a certain amount of time, or a certain number of pages. Give yourself a topic to start with, or just write whatever you think of. Some of my best ideas have come from madly scribbling for several pages. Usually not all of it will be good, but you can pull phrases and ideas to use elsewhere.
Ambiance: I cannot write in an unpleasant environment. Given that I’m essentially a grungy teenager in an adult body, my idea of a “pleasant environment” is not necessarily clean, but it is fairly organized and includes scented candles to cover the smell of cat litter. Good lighting. My point here is that a “pleasant atmosphere” looks different for everyone. Try to find a space to make your own, or at least a comfortable space to write. It’s a lot harder in general to be productive if you’re not physically comfortable. I’m very sensitive to environment, so my creativity increases tenfold if I’m in my own house (or the Ace Hotel lobby, for example—one of my favorite workspaces in NYC). In summary, if you’re not getting things done or feeling creative, you may need to either move or clean.
Write ANYTHING down: Similar to a automatic writing exercise but different. Always keep a notebook with you, and whenever you get an idea you think MIGHT be worth pursuing, read a trivia fact that could be incorporated into your art, or have an interesting dream, get it down on paper.
Think of the future: If your problem is a lack of motivation, think of how you’ll feel next week if you do the writing (or whatever) you’re avoiding, as opposed to if you don’t. I once read a comment on a blog that really resonated with me on this topic—it said that forcing yourself to be productive is in some way analogous to having empathy for your future self. Of course the issue with lack of inspiration is sometimes just that—wanting to write doesn’t change it, you just can’t come up with anything good. But there are definitely times I find myself lying around in the middle of the day plotting scenes in my head but not writing them. Sometimes it helps me to think of the satisfaction I’ll feel from just getting it done.
Read like crazy: This is one of the keys to being a good writer. A friend of mine recently Tweeted that she feels like a combination of all her favorite people, having subconsciously emulated the personalities of those she admires. This is similar to my feelings on how writing ability and particular style develops—I certainly have my own unique way of writing, but I am also hugely influenced by my favorite writers. Reading can also help as far as creative inspiration. Non-fiction can teach you more about a particular topic you can then tie into your writing. So read all kinds of writing, and read a lot.
Ask for help: Don’t be afraid to ask for advice, even ideas. Have a friend read your work and give you feedback. Ask your family members to give you some uninterrupted time each day for creative work. One of the most crucial things in being successful in a creative industry is having support from the people around you.
Pick some random words and write: Have someone give you a bunch of random words, or look around the room and just write down a few things you see or think of. Then make a story out of these words. For example, I recently asked my sister for some writing inspiration. She gave me three words—rat, star, and mercy. I then wrote a short story on these words.
Take a break: While it is important to sometimes force yourself to at least try to work, you need to be able to judge when it’s best to call it a day or at least step away for a bit. Burnout is real, and if you’re not in the right headspace it can be very hard to be productive.
Thought web / mind mapping: A more organized and relationship oriented version of list making. Write down an idea. Get other ideas from that idea, and draw lines between the different entries to the “web”. Before you know it, you’ll have a topic, subtopics, and things that might connect well to your main idea. I use the app iThoughts for this (although pen and paper works just as well).
Write / create what you want: It’s really hard to write something you hate. Even when I’ve done more “boring”, non-creative writing, it’s been something I care about—nonprofit work for a cause that matters to me, or things like study guides on academic subjects I’ve always had a knack for. With creative writing, it’s even more important to be engaged in what you’re writing. Poetry is so fueled by raw emotion, creative non-fiction is usually pretty personal, and fiction will not be good if you don’t care about your characters or what happens to them. While marketability is a concern, I firmly believe almost any topic can be written in a high-quality way that is enjoyable to read—and one key to producing writing like this is to be passionate about it.
Figure out the best routine for you: This might be my number one tip for all kinds of writers, and pretty much everyone else who does work of any kind. So much productivity rests on having a plan and sticking to it, and knowing what works for you. For example, I know that after dark, I am unable to get anything done that I don’t purely want to do. When the sun goes down, all I want to do is write something pointless about vampires, and / or watch one of my favorite movies for the millionth time. So I get up early, especially in the winter, in order to get a good 8-10 hours of work in before turning in for the night. I eat healthy. I only let myself order a pizza or smoke before bed if I’ve checked off my planned to-do’s for the day (for me, rewards are helpful in making myself actually do stuff). Daily routine always includes some blog work, some work on my current project, and at least half an hour of reading. Plus whatever else needs doing. Obviously this is just my routine, and yours will be different. But developing some kind of method is especially important if you’re self-employed or primarily freelance. It requires discipline, but once you’ve got that, you’re already halfway to success. Start with a plan, and make it happen.