A lot of my fellow writers ask me what I do when I get the dreaded disease that affects almost all writers at some point in their lives: writer’s block. Lucky for me I’ve only had writer’s block about two times in my life, but I was so ill-practiced at handling those times that I pretty much had the writing equivalent of an emotional breakdown. I cried to my boyfriend that I’d never be able to write ever again, and stared at my computer screen in despair for two weeks before inspiration struck. I started looking for alternate career paths and applying to part time jobs on craigslist. I drank…a lot.
Not my best moments.
But there’s a good reason I almost never get writer’s block, and it’s the same reason I’m bad at handling it when it comes: I am always trying, whether consciously or unconsciously, to take preventative steps against running out of inspiration. So when I do get true writer’s block, it’s more of an emotional need to recharge than it is out of a lack of ideas, a response to my I-love-writing-I’m-just-going-to-do-it-every-second-and-not-take-any-breaks lifestyle.
I am a very fast writer. If you don’t believe me, here’s an anecdote: during my 2.5 years at Hopkins (while working full time) I rewrote my novel Cairo in White several times, wrote my YA fantasy novel Dreamweaver Road (and its sequel, coming later this year), wrote a novella called Three on the Bank (coming out this summer from Storylandia!), wrote a second novel and a second novelette currently under revision, wrote about two books worth of short stories, and wrote a chapbook of poems.
In order to keep my brain constantly full of ideas, I do a combination of the following:
I love prompts. I think that a lot of writers sink into a very repetitive set of ideas, themes, motifs, and settings, but using a prompt and forcing yourself to write about something completely new can put you outside of your comfort zone (in a good way!). One of my favorite sites is Prompt & Circumstance, run by two of my favorite people in the world, Shenan Prestwich and Brandi Dawn Henderson. I’ve written a short story about a chicken and a dragon, a poem about blueberry pie, and most recently, a four part story about a strange photograph found in a grandmother’s closet. I find that my prompt pieces tend to be funnier and more lighthearted than my more serious fiction writing, because I allow myself the space to really enjoy whatever comes out of the process.
I live about twenty minutes from the heart of Washington, DC, so one of my favorite things to do is venture into the city and see something new that I’ve never seen before. Almost every time I go somewhere, I get inspired to write a new poem or story or even novel. Meridian Park. The Air and Space Museum. Dupont Circle.
Just because everyone thinks writers are homebodies who never talk to anyone but their cats DOES NOT MEAN WE SHOULD FOLLOW THAT STEREOTYPE. Go outside! Eavesdrop. Have a conversation with your barista. Not only will you improve your dialogue, but you might hear an interesting story.
I don’t think I need to say a lot about this, because every writer has been told to (or forced to) keep an idea journal. I’m not sure how many of us actually do it, but it helps! Stick newspaper clippings in it. Jot down notes from the above experiences. Sketch a picture. Later, when you’re blocked, you can fall back on your journal to help you out of a rut. Plus, it’s fun to play kindergartener and paste a collage every once in a while.
Other Art Forms
In addition to exploring outdoor and intellectual DC, I’ve been to most of this city’s wonderful art museums. Reading is so important for writers, but other art forms can be just as influential. Watch movies. Listen to music (especially music you would not normally listen to!). Take a ceramics class. Then use those artists’ work to inspire your own.
My first novel took place in Egypt, and along the way I took Arabic and visited Cairo. Though taking a class in beading or cooking homemade pasta or gardening may seem useless now, later on, you’ll find one of your characters is a gardener or cooks a romantic pasta dish for his or her significant other before being jilted at the altar.
See the above warning against being antisocial, and apply that here too. Writers do not need to sit in front of their computers all day, and in fact, doing so can just perpetuate writer’s block! Move around. Go on a walk. Peek into people’s backyards. Take a yoga class (this will help with your writer’s block stress immensely).
Like a car running on empty, you can’t expect your brain to spit out wonderful ideas every day if you don’t give it anything to use. Put inspiration in, and it will come out later as an idea for a piece just when you need it most.
Now, if none of these methods work, you’re probably not suffering from a lack of ideas. Instead, you’re suffering from your own overzealousness, your own pressure to constantly create. Like me, you’ll have to learn how to slow down and give yourself the room to breathe, to think and consider and read and relax, before you go back to that killer YA novel idea you’re convinced will be the next Twilight. Trust me, both your mind and body will thank you for it.
For all you writers reading this post: please comment with your own ideas!