This week I’m writing about how to write when you’re out of ideas.
I’m convinced that we can find endless triggers to get the words flowing if we tune in and pay attention. Ideas are EVERYWHERE. Before we get to my list (not all inclusive, by any means) of ways to load up your idea hopper, think about doing this by using each of your senses individually. In fact, if you devote an entire day (or week) to focusing on each sense, my bet is you’ll have more ideas than you know what to do with. (And if this happens, refer to my blog post on how to write when you have too many ideas.) Begin with the snippets you generate and build on them. Before you know it, you’ll have full-blown stories in the works.
Look. Rather than just go through your day on autopilot, slow yourself down and really LOOK at all the beautiful and miraculous people, places, and things you encounter every single day. Stop long enough to take in the details of a face or a hand, the lines of a building, a room and its contents, and the form and color of the ordinary items you use every day. Make a mental picture or take a picture on your phone for later reference (unless it will get you into some kind of trouble), or sit down in the moment and write – in detail – what you see. Plant yourself in a public place (like a coffee shop or a park) and you’ll have more than enough seeds to get going: Describe the old man eating alone on a bench at the park or the young woman with the cast on her foot at the coffee shop, then begin to imagine their stories. Why are they there? Where did they come from? Where will they go when they leave? Who do they love? Who loves them?
Observe art. Get online, or better yet, visit a museum. Find at least five pieces that resonate with you. You don’t have to know why. Just sit and write a description of each of them. What’s going on in the painting or photograph? What’s the story behind the sculpture? OR, name the emotion(s) each piece brings up in you. Attach that emotion to an event or a character and go from there.
Pay attention to colors. Colors evoke emotion in us. Focus on a color and write about it. What memories does it trigger in you? What does it symbolize? What object(s) does the color affix itself to in your mind: a coat, a car, a dress, a building…?
Listen. As with looking, slow down and really begin to listen to the symphony of sounds that make up your world. As I write this, the refrigerator’s motor is running behind me – a soft, windy sound embedded with a bright, high-pitched tone. The sound of kids playing on the playground – a cacophony of voices that rise and fall, squealing with glee, making protests, and shouting orders, occasionally punctuated by their male teacher’s voice and the echo-y bounce of a rubber ball on the cement. The clicking of my staccato keyboard strokes. The hiss of a bus’s brakes slowing at the corner.
Write down song lyrics that resonate with you and riff on them for several minutes.
Sit in nature and note the ambiance. Notice the plethora of subtle sounds around you. Focus in on 1-3 of the sounds you hear, and imagine a character listening to each sound. What is he/she doing? How does the sound fit in with, influence, or affect the moment he/she is experiencing?
Eavesdrop on conversations. Sitting in a public place and turning into what’s being said around you is a great way to generate dialogue and story ideas. All you need is one unusual comment or question to get you going.
Smell. While I’m a filmmaker and avid film viewer and believe film to be a powerful change instigator, it can’t evoke our imaginations around smell the way the written word can. As you go through your day, make a list of all the smells you encounter. Write down their sources, then write at least one paragraph for each in which you describe the smell in detail. (This is not easy!) Then, imagine what’s going on around that smell and let your imagination do the rest.
Touch. As with smell, touch doesn’t translate in film, nor is it easy to write, but give it a try. For a week, pick five textures per day, and spend time touching each one. Use ordinary items from your day (your coffee cup, your bedspread) or seek out new ones. (Try visiting a fabric store and touch a variety of fabrics, find textures in nature, or visit a walk around your town or city to see what you can find.) Write at least one paragraph for each. Describe the feeling of each one. (Hint: Using metaphor/simile will come in handy here.) But don’t limit this to what you can touch with your fingers. Also think about textures of food in the mouth.
Taste. And speaking of the mouth, don’t forget taste. Set out to focus on all the possible options (sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami – a new one to me. Read about it here and here). Spend a week planning your meal options around food to explore the full spectrum of possible tastes. Brainstorm what situations might align with each taste, and a story will unfold. (For example: Sweet. Cotton candy. Carnival. Who’s there? What’s he/she doing?)
Sending you mad writing mojo…