The hardest insecurity to overcome as a writer is the belief that you don’t have anything to write about. Sometimes it can be extremely intimidating to read the works of others before sitting down to write something of your own. We’re plagued with thoughts of our lives being uneventful, too routine, or impossible to relate to. This is when it’s important to remind ourselves it’s impossible to write in a vacuum. Inspiration for a new work often comes from the least expected source. We need to look outside of ourselves to get new ideas.
A few months ago, I felt particularly hung up and dry of ideas. I was listening to the radio in my car when a segment came on called “Music That Moves Me.” It was a short radio package done each day, in which a different community member described a song or album that was particularly special to them. On this day a woman described how Melanie’s “Candles in the Rain” defined her first teenage summer spent with her sisters.
“Listening to that album represents the first time I felt independence,” she said. Boom. That was a prompt. Behind the wheel in my car, I was able to begin tracing the lineage of my own independence. That’s how I began this article, which turned out to be something I’m actually pretty proud of.
Prompts are everywhere. They’re in interviews, movie scripts, conversations with friends, and apparently radio segments. (They’re also online on websites like this.)
As writers, it’s important for us to always ask questions in order to get the real feeling of things. But we can’t forget to step back and appreciate our own answers. As breathing human beings, we’re automatically interesting. Some of the best writing is about friendships, family relationships, falling in and out of love — experiences we all share, but the individual details of which depend on the writer.
A journalist who used to come sit at my bar gave me some really simple advice one night.
“If you want to write, you have to read,” he said.
Then he gave me a free subscription to The New Yorker. His simple statement reminded me I wasn’t making enough time for my craft. I was stuck behind a bar every day, barely reading more than a specials chalkboard. Of course I felt blocked. I wanted to write but I didn’t even have time to read.
Receiving The New Yorker was honestly intense. It’s filled with talented emerging writers, telling stories both true and fictitious, and it comes every single week with unnerving regularity. If you don’t make time for it, you’ll have stacks and stacks of issues serving as glaring reminders that you’re neglecting your craft.
For me, The New Yorker served as a weekly reminder to sit down and read. See what the hot shots are getting into. Maybe one day I can be one of them.
Reading a novel, a blog, a newspaper, or a magazine gives you time to take in what’s actually getting published and draw from the styles of other writers. Read some Kurt Vonnegut or John Irving, and practice writing like you speak. Find the comedy in everyday, simple experiences. See if you can’t copy the conversational yet gripping and emotional prose of Tracy Ross, or the absolute hilarity of awkward experience as described by Susan Jane Gilman.
A free-write is when you give yourself a topic. That topic could be as small as describing a jar of pickles or as broad as describing the first time you felt snow. Set your timer for five minutes or so and write whatever comes into your brain for every second that goes by. Typing doesn’t count.
I did my first free-write in a high school creative writing class. Mrs. Finland had us begin with the topic of 4th of July. By the end of the class, I had a first draft of a crazy long poem about patriotism and what it meant to me as a teenager. It was probably filled with angst and contained five too many misguided references to the 1960s, but at least I had something. And it started from a simple phrase I found in my free-write.
What’s important about this exercise is that you don’t allow yourself the time to go back and erase. Every thought is a useable thought. When you’re done, you’ll have much more than just a page filled with scribbles and fragments. You’ll have an actual thought log of descriptions, feelings, phrases that can help you get started on your next piece of writing.
Maybe writer’s block is so difficult for us to overcome because we envision it as a wall, an obstacle we can’t overpower until we experience some kind of epiphany.
When you feel uninspired, ask yourself why. How can you look at your world differently in order to find something new? Maybe we’re all searching for the next new idea when we really need to be looking for a fresh perception. Every ridiculous women’s magazine will tell you that when you’re in a rut, change something about yourself.
No matter what obstacle comes her way, a writer needs to write. Sometimes it takes internalizing that obstacle and learning to reshape it into something you can actually use.
It’s crucial to remember that writing takes work, new ideas are often hidden behind obstacles.
That same journalist told me, “Writing is a craft before it becomes an art, and becoming a competent craftsman is a worthy goal. Good luck.”