Ever tried searching for inspiration at the bottom of a paper cup of skim cappuccino? I have! It’s not there is it. Unfortunately, an untold sum of fieldwork has proven that coffee does not automatically… More
Just as those last few pounds are hard to drop, those last few chapters, and especially those last few paragraphs are hard to write. If you want to keep your passion project passionate you should have some trusted habits to loosen up and let yourself NOT work on it.
That’s right, step away from your desk and put the pen down. There are certain kinds of breaks that actually help make the work better. When I’m stuck, experience has shown that there are several strategies I use to help me let go, before I get going again. Six to be specific:
- Dance – I admit it, sometimes I dance alone at home. Usually I do it with my one-year-old son, but sometimes I do it by myself. It’s a great way to shake out a new idea, especially when no other method works. Think about it, many people use music as inspiration, however if you’re going to dance alone, you’ve really got to like the song. You’ve somehow got to be inspired. It’s hard to feel frustrated or blocked while you’re dancing.
- Take a Long Walk – In fact, take a long exhausting walk, get new blood and oxygen pumping through your brain. Sometimes we forget that ideas are physical as well as mystical and studies have shown that when you can get a fresh flow of material through your brain, you are more likely to get a fresh flow of material on the page.
Get Your Subconscious on Your Side
- Question Your Dreams – Sometimes problems work themselves out if you let yourself “sleep on it.” Yet, that’s not often how it goes with writing. Lately I’ve tried a more direct approach. I set aside any creative problems I can’t solve during the day and write them in the form of a question. At night, I re-read the question when I’m on the cusp of sleep. When I wake up, I often get new insights, without torturing myself.
- Meditate – This may not be a quick fix, but it is a revolutionary one. It has been an on-going experiment of mine. By that I mean ten minutes a day, imitating what I’m supposed to be doing, less than perfect concentration, meditation experiment. But it has actually worked! Despite all my imperfections! As a result I’ve experienced less resistance and more clarity when writing. Considering my actual meditation abilities, that is nothing short of a miracle.
Never Face a Blank Page
- The Napkin Method – Now that you’ve created a storm of inspiration by moving around and loosening up the subconscious, it’s time to catch some rain drops. This is a classic practice I call the “napkin method.” You might want to carry around actual index cards in case there aren’t any napkins handy. Then remember to scribble ideas as they come to you, right outside the shower, in the midst of washing dishes, during your long, exhausting walk. By respecting your ideas enough to write them down, it encourages more ideas to pop into your head, and that’s where the real accumulation happens.
- Make a Binder – I’m a nerd. Actually I´m a teacher, but I´m also a nerd. I use binders for everything, because it creates a hospitable container for the avalanche of information that builds up in my brain. This is where I keep my napkins and research and little clips of inspiration. It makes the ethereal process of writing a little more tangible.
Although conventional wisdom advises you to ignore writer’s block and write through it, the fact is that any normal human brain needs a break. It also helps to have different ways to process material. What doesn’t help is reaching the point where the very sight of your keyboard produces noxious chemicals in your brain that make it impossible to get back to work. So test out some new habits. They might just become a regular part of your ever-evolving creative process.
Recently I had the time and energy for a serious writing streak, and it got me thinking about inspiration. What does it feel like? How can we keep it going? What is it made of?
Of course this topic has been written about at length, but when I started to reflect on the feeling, it occurred to me that inspiration is an intersection between being relaxed and stimulated.
What does that mean?
When you’re inspired ideas pour out rapidly, there’s a flow that doesn’t require much effort. On the one hand there’s a feeling of enjoyment and ease, but at the same time, it´s not at all passive. You’re highly stimulated and excited. You can’t write fast enough.
This got me thinking about inspiration as a unique state balanced between meditation and work. So I decided I want to initiate an on-going experiment, reflecting upon the relationship between meditation and inspiration.
I’ve come to some initial conclusions, but first, let me define my terms:
Meditation – When you let go of all thoughts of the outside world, often by focusing only on your breath or a mantra. This practice is enhanced by time, patience and repetition so that the meditator increasingly reaches an incredible state of bliss.
Inspiration – As artists, this one is probably our favorite state, it’s like a creative fountain of ideas that flow with great clarity. It’s also a place of naked honesty because ideas are still evolving. In your mind, you’re still posing questions, and answers are flashing up (which is exciting) but you’re not committed to them yet. You’re allowing them to build and fluctuate.
Thus far in my experiment, I’ve made three initial observations that greatly increased my levels of inspiration and my productivity as a writer.
- The story becomes clearer. Have you ever noticed that the moment you stop trying to solve a problem, the answers float to you almost naturally? So it is with meditation. I spend ten minutes letting go, and then as I’m coming out of it, my mind is flooded with clarity. I have insights that I wouldn’t normally have. Plus I can focus this clarity in the direction I choose.
- I’m more flexible with my edits. You’ve probably heard the old writing adage, “Kill your darlings,” but usually that’s so hard to do. I have the habit of coming up with a title that I love and then trying to bend the whole plot just to make it fit. You’ll have to murder me before I kill that title, even if it’s not working. However, I’ve noticed that meditation gives me a more flexible cushion for editing. I’m not grasping on to the stuff that’s got to go.
- It increases concentration and decreases cappuccino. This one surprised me, because it wasn’t intentional, but I noticed by meditating (and constantly hydrating) I was better able to concentrate and my coffee craving went away after breakfast. Plus at the end of the day I didn’t feel drained. I still had energy to spare.
So, this is where I’d like to invite you to join my experiment! It’s an invitation to become more creative, energetic, and of course, more inspired.
Do you have to do meditate perfectly?
No. Just sitting with the intention to let go brings with it these early benefits of meditation. Your thoughts don’t have to disappear completely so that you enter Nirvana and become totally enlightened. What ever you bring to meditation is good enough.
I’ve just meditating again, and it’s been for ten minutes and my thoughts have by no means disappeared. But the habit of concentrating inward has felt so great.
The fact is, as a mom, wife and full time teacher, I’ve been trying to find ways to make the spare hours I have for writing really count. If you’re in a similar situation, and have strategies, I’d love to hear them!
In a recent blog I proposed that we identify with characters through bad luck. After that I was thinking, is that too doom and gloom? Why am I so focused on the hard stuff?
I want test my theory on a real story. So I’m taking a step back to ask: Why are problems so important?
To answer my challenge, I want nominate a writer who is a total master in the character department: Chimamanda Adichie.
Adichie gave a TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story” in which she explains how “single stories” become a kind of conceptual imperialism over cultures, countries and continents; her central example being how negative messages have collapsed Africa into a stereotype of poverty and pretty animals. This talk went viral because it struck the chord of what needed to be said and perhaps had never been said so exquisitely.
Still, I want to distinguish between these two types of negatives: There are stories that rob people of their dignity and there are stories that give dignity to struggle.
Chimamanda Adichie’s story “Birdsong,” is the latter. Here’s why:
The story actually touches upon the similar themes to the TED Talk. It’s a classic love triangle in which we have an honorable wife living in the United States, and a hidden lover living in Nigeria. The story is told through the voice of the lover, who is being tortured by this married man who passively implies that she is always secondary.
I love this line, “She’s 32 and tottering under the weight of her own desire to settle down.” In the context the narrator is describing the desire of a friend, because perhaps she won’t even admit it about herself. That’s the thing about stories, we expose all the things we’re scared to say.
And why don’t we ever say them?
Because they create problems and vulnerabilities. Look at Birdsong, plug it into the character worksheet.
From a craft perspective, I really admire the architecture of this story. Scene by scene, Adichie lays out the complete triangle by addressing the arrows of connection and conflict between the characters.
There’s an intimate scene between the lover and the married man in which she plucks a pillow feather from his hair and he says, “You’ll want to settle down soon… I just want you to know I’m not going to stand in your way.” She responds with “the kind of overdone mockery that masks damage.” Here we feel the load baring wall of her longing for love and his repressing it to just sex. The arrow between the husband and wife is drawn through the presence of the cellphone and a tangle of private jokes. Finally the arrows between the wife and lover are represented at the beginning and end of the story by a staring contest between the lover and a wealthy woman.
However, returning to the original question: Is there really dignity in this mess of problems and desires?
I still say yes, there is dignity.
Our problems and desires are essential to our identities. Our stories are our identities.
Think about your own life. Who would you be if someone robbed you of all you’ve been through?
Our struggles turn us into the people we become, and they need a place where they can be expressed, valued, and dignified.
As Chimamanda Adichie says in her TED Talk, “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story.” That’s why it’s so important that we tell our own stories and put them out there to clarify our own struggles, triumphs and desires.
At the end of Birdsong, the illicit lovers stares back at the wealthy figure of the the wife and says, “What’s your problem? Why have you been staring at me? Do I owe you?”
There is both power and dignity in that.
If you want your story or essay to stand out in a crowded market, these are literary concepts that will transform your writing by maximizing depth and power.
These are the real game changers. They captivated people in Ancient Greece, and they’ve been mastered by Hollywood, but they are also the mark of great literary fiction and creative nonfiction. ln fact, they’re so juicy I’m not even going to introduce them anymore. Here they are:
- Internal and External Conflict
One thing I love about good writing is that exterior events are given their proper interior weight.
When we rush through life on a daily basis, tons of things happen, but we rarely see the meaning of it. On the other hand, sometimes life slows us down with catastrophic events. However, unless we sit down and put pen to paper, we never get to examine the ordinary or the extraordinary from the inside out.
In literature, this is called internal and external conflict. Take a look at your own writing (and/or life), especially the challenges and conflicts. Make two columns. In one column write the external situation, and in the other write the internal meaning and value. When you separate out these to perspectives, you’ll get better control of your narrative.
Perhaps this sounds simple, but it’s not. So often we take the interior meaning for granted and it’s not explicit in our work. And it’s a shame because that’s what will resonate with your audience. Write it out and put it in!
2. Inciting Incident
In literature, bad luck is actually good luck. Weird but true.
Because bad luck does a better job of developing our characters and ideas. It runs them through thresher so only the riches rise to the top.
That’s the beauty of the inciting incident, that moment early-on when something bad happens: a problem, surprise, or mystery appears. This moment sets us off-balance and sends us tumbling through the rest of your words, hungry for resolution. Although the inciting incident was originally designed for fiction, it applies to nonfiction as well. It’s an early show of vulnerability where you connect with your reader, by showing them something utterly human that your work will address.
Take a look at your current draft and highlight the inciting incident. If it’s subtle, magnify it. If it’s missing all together, think about how you might use this device to better connect with your audience. You may also consider grabbing the stories or essays of your literary heroes, and see if you can detect this tool in their work.
Everybody wants more epiphanies, right? Obviously. They are those euphoric moments where everything seems to make sense, you achieve clarity, and suddenly you know what you must do.
People love reading epiphanies as well, they make for a fulfilling climax. Plus, that’s where all the problems we labored over finally pay-off, because, the greater the challenge, the grander the epiphany.
But how do you get to this amazing pay-off? Do you have to sit and wait for God to tap you on the shoulder?
No. You can create your own epiphanies with pen and paper. Writers do it all the time.
Here’s the process I use. It’s simple and very effective. I start out with utter honesty. Whatever I’m afraid of or angry about, I start writing it down, exactly as it feels in my head. I can do this as myself, or as my character. However, as I’m doing this, I’ve learned to expect a turn. If I dig deeply enough something golden is revealed beneath all that darkness.
At its core, an epiphany is essentially just bombastic honesty. That’s how this trick works. Ride the wave of honesty until everything becomes exquisitely clear.
Why are these the game changers?
Because these three tools will wedge you deep below the surface, where your work is truly original. That’s where you hit the paradox of the specific and the universal. When you’re being authentic and writing about the struggles and lessons that only you can write about, you get universal resonance. That’s the real gold.
Now that you’ve sparked your story it’s time to catch fire. That’s right, it’s time to create characters and bring them to life.
Most literary writers say that you must begin with character, character, character, because all stories revolve around compelling characters, so if you want to write great fiction start with great characters.
But what does that even mean?
Let’s say I’m writing about a lawyer with green eyes and curly hair who is in love with an exotic dancer.
Is that interesting? Do you identify with him?
Maybe, maybe not.
I believe that we identify with a character’s struggles, more than just the character. Think about it, in life we don’t just walk out onto the street and identify with every human just because they’re human. Thus in fiction we don’t identify with every character just because he’s a character.
In a sense we identify with each other through bad luck.
Because it’s transformative. When we run into problems, we have to struggle out of them. We change and grow. That’s what makes experience golden.
If you didn’t identify with my lawyer, can you identify with the vulnerability and excitement of falling in love?
That’s more likely.
We connect with the story through the vulnerability and excitement, the problem and desire. Ironically the more specific the details, the more I identify with this lawyer and his exotic dancer.
Let’s say my lawyer, Lorenzo, watches his exotic dancer at a bar, back in the shadows, because he doesn’t want her to know he’s there. One day he sees a drunk, Dietrich, grab her between the legs and she’s not strong enough to push him away. Lorenzo then waits for Dietrich outside the door to the parking lot gripping the spiked neck of a broken whiskey bottle.
Have I ever been in that situation?
Can I identify with Lorenzo?
Sure, because I’ve watched somebody I love get hurt (problem) and have wanted to defend them (desire).
In an earlier blog I scribbled around with the problem and desire, so at this point it’s time stick in the electrodes and charge up those characters.
If you try to do this in your head it can get confusing and mushy, that’s why I recommend playing with circles and arrows. There’s even a Character Worksheet.
I’ll use Lorenzo, Dietrich and Sabine (the stripper) as an example.
First the circles. What does each character want?
Then the arrows. How do these desires create problems between characters?
You can continue at will, drawing arrows and brainstorming complications between characters, based on their desires.
Sketching your ideas out in a graphic way helps you shake off writer’s block by getting clear about what you’re writing. If you ever get exhausted, take the hint and play around with ideas like this. Hopefully the relationships will begin to take shape, and actual scenes will bubble into your mind.
Don’t forget, as you’re creating all these problems and unfulfilled desires, you’re putting drops of real humanity in fictional humans. That’s what makes them come alive.
Most writing exists to share information.
Fiction exists to share emotion;
to share what it feels like to be alive.
In fiction the entire spectrum of human experience has meaning and value.
As humans we can’t control what will happen to us,
but if we love stories, no matter what happens,
we will never be alone.