Many strange things happen when you make the transition from someone who thinks about writing a lot to someone who actually writes. One of the strangest is that, at first, you may find that you don’t have much to write about.
One of the hardest challenges in writing is getting the engine to start. Once the words are flowing it’s easier to take that momentum and focus it into something worthwhile. But what do you if you sit down to write and it seems like your fingers stick to the keys? When I first started writing every day that problem smacked me in the face.
This was weird and surprising to me, because I never shut up. I’ve noticed that one the things I bring to a social gathering is that when I am in the room there are very few awkward pauses. The awkward pauses are replaced by equally awkward blatherings from me. But at least there’s momentum!
But when I would sit in front of the keyboard intending to write something–anything, as long as I was writing–I often found I had nothing to say. Me, of all people! Why should this be? Did my brain only generate material when my vocal chords were flapping? Can I only perform for an audience? Do I actually have nothing to say and just love the sound of my own voice, as so many have accused me of doing in the past?
I’ve been writing nearly every day for over a year now, and I’ve gotten much, much better at this. I’m not saying I never have that problem, or that my 250,000 word writing journal doesn’t have a lot of repetition. But mostly I’ve licked it, and I think I understand what changed. There are two factors, and they can both help overcome the horrors of Blank Page Syndrome.
The first is seeds. When talking to other people there is always a conversation seed. Someone said something. The more people in a group, the more likely it is that there is something worth talking about. It’s even more true if you know the people you are with. I find that there is always something I wanted to say to someone in the group but haven’t gotten the chance.
In writing, it really helps to have something to write about, even if it doesn’t matter or isn’t interesting. The blank page has the same effect as a doorway, which psychological studies have demonstrated actually do make you more likely to forget why you entered the room in the first place. Likewise, the blank page can suck away your motivation and momentum like a sponge. A sponge that is also a doorway.
Take a few minutes and come up with a list of interesting writing topics. Not too interesting. Just something you think you can blab on about for a few minutes. Make a file. Then, when you can’t get started, pick something in the file and just get going. It doesn’t matter if it’s something you’ve written about a million times before. The goal here is to get warmed up, which makes it much, much easier to work on something you actually care about.
The second factor is practice. I know, I know, people always say that about everything, but it’s true. You know that feeling where you sit down to write and everything in your brain screams at you that you are wasting your time and you can’t do this and it’s too weird and maybe you should go play video games and come back and try this writing thing tomorrow?
Not every new writer experiences this, but many of us do. And it turns out that feeling goes away. It dies. You’ll barely notice when this happens unless you are really looking for it. But one day, or one week, writing will transform from something that feels kind of unnatural into the most natural thing in the world. A basic and fundamental part of your life and daily routine.
Because it has become a basic part of your life and daily routine. The same way a new route to work feels weird and wrong at first, but eventually do you it without much thought. Writing is the same way, only much, much better. And it is accomplished in the same way as well: just keep bloody doing it.
We talked about how and why performing automatic activities such as writing and showering lead to creative thinking. Now we discuss specific ways to put this into practice. Many writers suggest that if you struggling to find ideas and not finding them you should go for a walk. That’s a great place to start. But once you understand the mechanisms that underlie why going for a walk launches you into a creative space, you can take some extra steps to make it work even better.
Here are a few good ones.
1. Prime the Pump Before Activity
The problem with letting your mind wander freely is that it wanders freely. Maybe you go for a walk hoping for a breakthrough on how your characters can overcome a specific obstacle, but instead you find yourself brainstorming about how to remodel your kitchen. So before you go, put yourself into the right head space. Read the last few pages of what you have written. Or spend 10 minutes brainstorming, no matter how unproductive it is. Then immediately go for that walk. Make sure to put your shoes on first.
2. Perform Automatic Writing Every Single Day
Automatic writing is another oft-prescribed trick for generating ideas. If you have tried it and it hasn’t worked for you it is probably for a very simple reason: it isn’t automatic enough. If you don’t write very often, or you are in a slump where you haven’t been writing lately (it happens to all of us!) you might be struggling just to force yourself to move forward. This makes the activity deliberate rather than automatic, and so it isn’t nearly so creative. Try doing 10 minutes of automatic writing every day. Because it is such a simple and natural activity (after all, you are a writer), it likely won’t take more than a few days to become automatic. Then you can just sit back and watch the creativity pour out of you.
3. Do Writing Drills
Writing prompts can be great, but they are the opposite of automatic. If you struggle with generating ideas writing prompts can often cause the worst kind of mental freeze-ups, because they start you from an absolutely blank canvas. A better way to use them is to flip the entire concept of writing prompts around. Instead of doing a new prompt when you need a creative boost, trying practicing the same prompt over and over again. It should be a fairly open-ended prompt with a lot of creative space, but not too much. It should also be fairly short. Here is an example:
4. Write one page of dialogue between two characters that hate each other.
At first it will be difficult. But once you do it 10 or 20 or 50 times, you’ll be amazed at how automatic the activity will become. Not only will you start to develop your own patterns and formulas for this specific task, it will lead to a place of automaticity where your mind can work on other, related things. You might find on your 50th repeat of this prompt that it leads to insight into an entirely different piece of dialogue you’ve been struggling with.
5. Try Structured Automatic Writing
This is a strange technique, so bear with me. Write a detailed outline of a very short story. Make sure that you know exactly how the story will play so that when you write it there will be no surprises or difficulty. Once you have done this, go ahead and write the story as quickly as possible, without taking your fingers off of the keyboard. Don’t worry if the story is any good!
When you do this a few times you will find that the act of writing the story becomes rather automatic. It is a lot like going for a walk, only you are writing. It will free up your creative mind in a similar way, and as soon as you are finished the automatic writing task you can jump straight into whatever piece of writing you were originally working on.
6. Combined Automaticity With Association
I find it even easier to be creative when the physical space or conditions are the same as they were last time I was creative. Walking is good, but walking the same path can be even better. You can enhance this effect by adding other sense. Start your creative activity by listening to a specific song, or eating an apple. Then, next time, when you listen to that song or taste that apple your brain will go to the same creative place it did before. When you want to go for a walk to think creatively about a different subject, listen to a different song or eat a different fruit. One theory about creativity is that it is associative memory that works quickly. Use your brains strong links between association and sensation to supercharge this effect.