Writing is Hard: How to Corral All Those Wild Ideas

My experience has shown that “writer’s block” isn’t a lack of ideas, but an actual blockage, a dam of morsels all trying to flow from your brain into your pen at the same time.

“Where do you get your ideas from?”
From the land where questions don’t end on a preposition.

What happens when talking about a cliche becomes itself a cliche? One of the boons and curses of being a creative being is the never-ending stream of ideas that you’re forced to maneuver through on a daily basis. I think about how something like “writer’s block” is a fraught idea in our discipline. Some people say it doesn’t exist. Others say it’s very real and something debilitating. My experience has shown that “writer’s block” isn’t a lack of ideas, but an actual blockage, a dam of morsels all trying to flow from your brain into your pen at the same time.

It feels empty because nothing is coming out, but that’s only because it is overfull, not dry. There are already too many metaphors in this post. Or are they similes? I always get those mixed up. Have some more.

When an artists says they’re “out of ideas,” maybe they’re just overwhelmed with snippets and bits and don’t know which one to take hold. They’re not trying to find a needle in a haystack, the haystack is made of needles. Ideas are everywhere and every single one has the shape of “This is THE ONE” at a certain angle. The FOMO (fear of missing out, apparently) is real when it comes to all our little darlings. But what is the best solution for capturing and retaining all that creative gold? Here’s the twist:

1. Stop Looking for “The One”

This is the most important piece of advice I can give you. Stop trying to find a perfect system to categorize your ideas. Stop working with the latest apps and web sites that promise to streamline your life and make you more productive. Productive is seductive but I’m trying to be reductive. I’m making this point so can make that rhyme. Get those ideas down when and where you can. There’s no right way to collect. Instead, work on making a habit of collating your ideas.

2. Collate and Consolidate

Take a few minutes (I do this during an online call, or listening to a podcast) gather your pieces of paper, notebooks, notes on your phone, etc. and put everything into a single document (preferably one that is backed up). Don’t think about what you’ve written down at this point. This is merely rote transcription. Call it “SNIPPETS OF GREATNESS” and look it over once a week. The ritual of cleaning up the physical manifestation of your stray thoughts may have the effect of clearing your mind of detritus as well.

3. Review and Reflect

The last part of your collation routine should be to look over the most recent notes you’ve added in relation to the ones you’ve previously saved. Are there themes? Are there patterns? Do you have a recurring dream of being a small bear in a large bowl of oatmeal? (No? Just me?) Reflect on the ideas you’re having and see if there is something that your mind has been working on in the background. Perhaps that weird snippet has turned into a new novel idea, or the beginning of a piece of flash fiction. Reflection is your friend.

4. Live with Abandon…ment

Give yourself permission to get rid of ideas. Let the old ones that never spur you further than the rhythm of their sentence fall by the wayside. Keep them in the file, but let them live on the last page as forgotten little gems that you come back to in a year and think “wow, what the heck was going on with me when I wrote that?” Think of this file as part of your writing journey, a way to test out language and ideas before fully committing to them with your time.

I think this works best in conjunction with a “Writing Journal” which I will talk more about in my next post. By making this a regular habit (say ten minutes each week) you can not only de-clutter a bit of your surroundings, but de-clutter the creative flow in your mind as well, preventing an idea jam from bringing your work to a screeching halt.

Unless you’re plagued with beavers. Then there’s no hope for any of us.

Getting back on track by making writing a habit

Well, I wouldn’t have a blog at all if I couldn’t come here and talk about how unproductive I’ve been. This seems to be the central theme of my writing life up until now and during the dog days of summer, I’m determined to make a change.

I have realized that I like the idea of writing instead of the writing itself. And I’m probably not alone in this. Once I came to that realization, I broke it down.

What is it about the idea of writing that I like?

I like the feeling of accomplishment when I’ve finished a project: the “I love having written” syndrome.

What is it about the practice of writing that’s putting me off?

Finding solid chunks of time when I’m not pulled away by family distractions or even ambient sounds. It’s amazing how distracted I can become.

What can I do to merge the idea and the practice together?

This is the tough one, and it’s answer doesn’t necessarily solve all of my problems. I want to make sure I have that feeling of accomplishment while at the same time making the practice of writing part of my everyday routine. Of the countless articles and blogs I’ve read about being a more productive writer, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are XXX things that resonate throughout all the advice.

1) Guard your writing time ruthlessly

This is a no-brainer, but sometimes hard to put into practice. If free time were completely my own, this wouldn’t be an issue. But I have a family and that means obligations outside of myself and I thought this would be the hardest hurdle to jump. Yet I realized one simple but fatal flaw in my thinking: that I have to fit writing into my free time. Suggesting that writing is something outside of work or family, that it’s still somewhere in the realm of hobby and something that only gets done when there is free time was the nail in the coffin. My writing time has to be carved out of all of my time: my work, family, chores, etc. Writing time is work time and as I am corralled off during work hours, so too shall I be when I’m writing.

2) Find a writing spot (or multiple)

I can’t write well at home. The drive to distraction is short and full of obligation. What I can do is make time each morning to head to a local coffee shop and get a few words down. I enjoy writing longhand so I don’t even need WiFi or a power outlet for my Chromebook. The physical space of the “place I write” has a power all its own. I’ve tested this out a few times over the last couple of weeks and I am so surprised how focused I become. I’ve gotten my YA Fantasy novel almost completely outlined. (This also included a LOT of world building, so outlining the next books in the series should go smoother – I can hear you laughing at me 😉 )

3) Burn it into your muscle memory

Making writing a daily habit is essential for me. I find myself relying on routines, muscle memory, rote actions, whatever, to get most tasks done on a daily basis. In order for me to be productive (and remember, your mileage may vary) I have to take it on everyday. I understand that daily writing is not necessary, not even weekly writing. All writers have to do what suits them best. For myself, it has to be as important and routine as brushing my teeth or walking the dog. It’s has to be done, so it will be done. Granted, creating new habits doesn’t take the 21 days that we’ve been repeatedly told. It could take 90 days, or 10 days, or a year. Hopefully, it won’t take too long.

Well, there you have it, the three things I’ll be working on to get back and stay on track writing. Have you found yourself wavering in your commitment as well? What tricks do you have for staying on track and getting your words out?