Every writer has the same experience at some point. When it comes to writing, we fear the empty page more than anything else . . .
But a blank screen (or empty page) cannot remain that way if you regard yourself as a writer. Writers write – that’s what they do. They don’t just think about writing, or just talk about writing, or even just read about it (as you are now — you should see my collection of books about writing!).
Now that you have been instructed to ravish the white space, how do you find something to write about?
Fortunately for you, you are alive. And that means – through the mundane action of living an ordinary life – you are exposed to an endless supply of ideas that are waiting to be transformed, by you, into something that others will care deeply enough about to pay to read.
Here is a list of ideas that will spur you on to writing:
- Find something you care deeply about, and then combine it with something outside of your experience. For example, perhaps you are a pro-lifer and have strong opinions about abortion. Now combine that with something you know ABSOLUTELY nothing about. I know nothing about motorcycles (don’t know where that idea came from). But I could write a book about a motorcycle gang member whose girlfriend is pregnant. She doesn’t want the baby but he already visualizes the developing baby in her womb. So when the little boy is born, she disappears into the smog and he is determined to raise the child. But he grew up without a father (you pick the backstory) and wants his son to experience the world as he never did. So he sets off on a journey, with a toddler, across the US. This can be a heart-warming novel, or a hopeless tragedy or even a comedy. Your own views on abortion and motorcycle riders will determine the kind of story you write. Or you could write it from the POV of the son who is now a teen. Already, the possibilities are endless for this one scenario.
- Newspapers offer exciting possibilities. Last week I read an article about a young woman who, in an inebriated state, allowed a penis to be tattooed onto her shoulder. The next morning she was horrified, and then kept it covered for years and did not let anyone know about her drunken disaster. When I read the article, I immediately considered writing a novel about a shy woman who decides to become a nun, because she cannot bear to be in a situation where she may need to enter into, shall we say, intimate relations – all because of a tattoo. You might think that she could just have it removed, but I am sure that if she really were a shy introvert who was concerned about what others thought, she would not dare to enter a tattoo parlour (sober, anyway), let alone allow a stranger to see the picture on her naked shoulder. So yes, she could make such a drastic decision, and become a nun. Perhaps looking at the image in the mirror, day in and day out, was enough to put her off for life. Okay, I hear the sceptics say, why was she drunk in the first place, if she was so shy (and perhaps the goody-two-shoes at school)? It’s your story, now. Why did she get drunk? Anyway, make the decision to read the paper for the little articles. Who cares about the headlines? I most certainly don’t. It’s the little stories that are actually the big ones.
- Dreams are often posited as fertile areas of inspiration. But don’t make the mistake of focusing on only your dreams. When others tell you about their dreams, don’t glaze over. Listen carefully. The opening of my second novel was inspired by a dream my husband had. Of course, the story is not based on his dream, verbatim, but the unrealness of it was enough to move me to draft my long-desired-for dystopian novel. Even children’s dreams are possibilities. Children have no filters and your son’s dream about purple, diesel-drinking plants may inspire you to write the environmentally sympathetic version of Day of the Triffids.
- The big WHAT IF? This is one of my favorite tactics. I ask WHAT IF? when I am out of ideas. WHAT IF time travel were possible? Where would my character go? WHAT IF three sisters decided to assassinate a tyrannical African despot? How would they do it? WHAT IF my husband decided that we should go and live in a motorhome in a Delhi slum? Sit down and write a long list of what-ifs. The best part is that – just by using the WI phrase – you have liberated your brain from the little box you keep shoving it into.
- Journaling – with a difference. I despise journaling. There, it’s out. Some of us don’t like to journal. Period. Our lives are too boring, we think. Well, make your life more interesting. What is a writer if not an astute liar? If you can’t bear to journal, lie your way through it. Start with the truth – always a good place – and then embroider. If, earlier this morning, you stood in a long checkout where the sales person was rude and obnoxious, what did you do? How will you write about it in your journal? Don’t write the truth. Fantasize, fabricate, and lie. Do whatever it takes to make your journal read like a life that could, just maybe, be yours – but isn’t. Then, after you have done your bit for keeping the craft of embroidery alive, switch back to the truth. Or stick with the lie. Whichever sounds better. Perhaps you went to the bank and the teller was a handsome hunk, and he gave you an especially sweet smile. What happened next? Did he slip you a phone number along with your twenties? Did you meet him afterwards for coffee, only to discover that he is the son your husband fathered while sowing his wild oats? Perhaps he has been looking for his dad for many years, and when he sees your surname on the withdrawal slip (it is an odd one, like Serectisimiz) he realizes that he may have found his long-lost father, who happens to be your husband. Of course, you knew nothing about the wild oats. And what were you thinking when you decided to go for coffee with the handsome hunk who is young enough to be your son, and actually is, in a sense, your son? (Who you now realise looks like a younger version of hubby – so it’s not really your fault because you have been hard-wired to fall for a certain genetic makeup). Play with your journal, but guard it with your life, while you’re alive. However, make sure that your children and grandchildren will be able to find it after your demise. Boy, are they going to be scandalized and impressed!
I hope you have now realized that your life is filled with inspiration, and no other writer will ever be able to tap into your inspiration. It belongs to you alone, so don’t waste the many opportunities that pass your way.
Select one of the exercises above and see where it takes you. Make it a habit to do a few exercises EVERYDAY until you finally get your inspiration. Perhaps you could do a different one each day of the week until you find the one that works for you.
A final note: If you are going to wait for the muse, you will wait a long time. For one thing, the muse is a man, and men are generally never in a hurry. Also, right now he’s under my writing table, giving me a foot massage. We may go for coffee afterwards.