This article was originally published in March 2008 in the WD web archives.
You slide behind the steering wheel, slip your key into the ignition and...nothing happens. You twist it back and forth, pound the dashboard a few times and utter words that would make a nightclub comedian blush.
But still, nothing happens. The battery is dead. And you're not going anywhere until you get a jump start.
We all know what it takes to jump-start a car, but what do you do when you slide behind the computer, slip your fingers onto the keyboard and...nothing happens? You sweat and squirm, pound your desk and curse at the cursor, but it doesn't do any good. Your story is stalled out. Your writing isn't going anywhere.
Most of us know what it feels like to be uncreative — our ideas are stale and dry, our writing is boring and predictable. We long to come up with ideas and stories that are fresh, original, inventive and spontaneous.
But how do you jump-start your brain?
Explore your L.I.F.E.
When you don't know where else to turn, explore L.I.F.E., an acronym for Literature, Imagination, Folklore and Experience. L.I.F.E. is a limitless well of ideas waiting to be tapped.
Coax new stories from classic plots by setting them in a different time and place; examine your imagination for themes that pique your interest; search through the timeless motifs of myth, fairy tale and folklore; scour the expanses of your own experience to spark new ideas. Let your memories come alive!
Some memories inspire us, others haunt us. Some memories cling to things we own, others hover around places we've been. Start with what you have, then nurture that fragment of memory: your teacher's face, the smell of your grandmother's cookies, the charming way your father used to whistle, the chill in your soul as you rushed to the hospital, the taste of salt spray that summer at the ocean, how it felt to hold your daughter's hand for the first time. Turn those memories over in your mind, flesh them out, allow them to breathe.
Every vivid memory is a garden of ripe ideas waiting to be harvested.
Change your perspective
Recently, while visiting a hotel in Denver, I noticed EXIT signs not only above the exit doors, but also at their base. "How odd!" I thought. "Only someone crawling on the floor would need a sign down there!"
Whoever put those signs there had looked through the eyes of someone crawling for safety during a fire.
Creativity isn't seeing what no one else sees; it's seeing what anyone else would see — if only they were looking. New ideas are born when we view life from a fresh perspective or peer at the world through another set of eyes.
So, look at your story from another person's perspective. Step into the shoes of your main character and write a journal entry, a complaint letter or a love note. Switch your point of view. Write a few paragraphs in first or third person. Think of how you would respond if you were in the story. Walk through the action, stand on your desk, crawl on the floor. And keep your eyes open for the doors no one else has noticed.
Let serendipity happen
In Horace Walpole's 18th century Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, the heroes discover new things again and again while looking for something else. From this we get the word serendipity, which Walpole defined as "the facility of making happy chance discoveries."
If you're stuck and drained of ideas, you might be trying too hard. You can't make happy chance discoveries until you step away and stop worrying. Relax. Worrying about problems is like looking at bacteria through a microscope — it doesn't help 'em go away, it only makes 'em look bigger. The longer you stare, the more imposing they appear.
So work smarter, not harder. Break your routine. Go to a movie. Have a cup of coffee. Abstain from octopus. Try writing in a different place or at a different time. Lift weights. Get up in the middle of the night. Place yourself in situations where you're not at ease — risking and responding to new challenges forces you to think creatively and opens the door for serendipity. Do something completely different and let parts of your brain you're not even aware of chew on the problem.
Photographers focus on a single event and snap the picture, freezing that moment forever. Each photo reveals only a sliver of reality, yet that carefully framed sliver contains a world of meaning. A great photographer knows just what to leave out.
Writers don't have a viewfinder. The lens we look through is as large as our imagination. And when we can't think of what to write next, we often try generating more ideas when we really need to set more limits. Skilled photographers carefully frame their shots just right. Skilled writers carefully fence in their ideas.
Nothing stalls writing more effectively than lack of focus. Freedom to write anything usually ends up as an excuse for not writing anything. As William Zinsser notes in On Writing Well, "Every writing project must be reduced before you start to write it."
What's your story really about? What's the theme? The deadline? The word count? If you weren't assigned any boundaries, set them yourself.
Look for connections
Creativity occurs at the intersection of ideas, when two thoughts that seem to have nothing in common collide and form something new. Don't feel pressured to always come up with ideas from scratch. Instead, look for ways of combining two or more familiar things into something novel and unique.
Do this by forcing yourself to make connections. Randomly choose any two objects in your home, combine them and form something new: "carpet" + "lights" might become "carpight" — a soft, cushiony, glowing floor covering that turns on when you step on it.
See? Think metaphorically. For example: An idea is like a flame — it curls and leaps and has a mind of its own. It's unpredictable and uncontrollable. And it'll eventually burn out unless you feed it fresh materials. Only then can it grow and spread and light new fires. Without attention, it'll slowly smolder and die. So when you discover a new idea, be careful! Feed it gently, don't smother it. Give your ideas space and every once in a while, blow on them to keep the embers glowing and the flames sprouting up.
Look for parallels or connections between things that seem to have nothing in common. Let unexpected connections spark your writing.
Ask stupid questions
Don't be afraid to ask obvious, even stupid, questions. It may help you restate the problem in a way that reveals the solution you've been looking for.
Describe the finished story to someone. What has to happen before you get there? What does the reader need to know by the end? You may have left out a key thought, clue or concept. Ask, "What's missing from my story? What have I left out? What would naturally come next?"
Use "What if?" questions to jar you toward a unique solution. "What if I started over from scratch? What if time wasn't a factor? Is time a factor? What if I made this a screenplay instead of a novel?"
No question is too stupid when it comes to framing and improving your story. Just be brave enough to accept and embrace the answers!
Question your direction
A Jewish folktale tells of a man searching for paradise. Every night he points his shoes toward his goal and goes to bed. Every morning he steps into his shoes and continues his journey. But one night, a mischievous imp turns the shoes around. The next day the man thinks he's headed for paradise, but he's really walking back home. Pretty soon, he ends up back where he started from.
His problem had nothing to do with lack of effort or motivation. He even had a wonderful destination. He just never noticed he was walking in the wrong direction.
That same imp visits writers. He sneaks into our stories and points the plot in the wrong direction. And we keep plugging away, writing page after page of a story that's headed nowhere.
Sometimes we write ourselves into a corner. We try harder and harder to scale the walls we've erected without ever wondering, "Does this story even need that corner?"
Question where you're going. Don't assume that you must be going in the right direction just because you're picking up from where you left off yesterday. Ask yourself, "Is this really the right direction for this story? If not, where did I make the wrong turn?"
Stay on track. Every day when you start writing, make sure the shoes are pointing in the right direction.