Inspiration — not motivation — for writing.
January 15, 2006 4:51 PM   Subscribe

Off-My-Ass-Filter: Finding inspiration — not motivation — for writing.

All my life I've felt this uncontrollable urge to write. Not neccesarily to "be a writer" but just to write — to put things into words on paper.

I decided to make this a carreer, so I got a journalism degree and spent five years working at various newspapers, which, despite the BS and politics of having someone tell you what to write all the time, was more or less artistically satisfying.

Seven months ago my husband and I moved to Korea. We'll be here until the end of 2007 and I am not working, so I have planned to devote this time to doing some real writing for myself, hopefully with the intention of getting published.

Every morning I sit down, do some stream-of-counciousness writing in an old notebook, and try to piece together a short personal essay (however mundane) for my blog.

However, when it comes to trying to write something of substance, I totally draw a blank. All of my ideas (however few they are) seem really contrived and dull. I can come up with a good start for a story but not an ending. It's not motivation that's my problem — it's inspiration.

I know I'm a good writer. I just don't thing I've ever been particularly creative, and I've always favored writing about real-life events as opposed to fiction. Given that I spend most of my days at home (working as a housewife) and know very little people here, there is not a lot of material in my own life to choose from right now. I've also tried writing prompts, but they all feel a little too 7th-grade-creative-writing-class for me.

I think part of my problem is that my journalism training has conditioned me to see a lot of things in very basic terms, as there is no room for artistic liscense there. Many times, the stories I wrote for my job already had a clear beginning and end even before I wrote them — I just had to express the story, not create it.

I've also read on a different MeFi thread that many people are incabable of starting something due to an intense fear that they'll fail at it. Maybe that's my deal.

So, MeFite writers and creators, how does one go from the grain of an idea to the actual expression of that idea?
posted by Brittanie to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 73 users marked this as a favorite
The Writer's Block has jump-started me a number of times.
posted by scody at 5:24 PM on January 15, 2006 [2 favorites]

This is a beautiful question and one that I believe is very common to writers, especially good writers. Let's address the idea that you can't finish a strory.

I used to have the same problem. I would have an idea, sit down and write many beautiful fleshed out pages before realizing that the story had kind of petered out. So this is what I do now. I sketch the story out from beginning to end and then flesh it out with detail and character building etc.

It is so much more fun this way, because I have already created a finite little universe in which to work and then I can build within it forever, or as long as I want to.

When you knock something out, put it up on projects or e-mail me, I would love to read it. Good Luck!
posted by snsranch at 5:32 PM on January 15, 2006 [2 favorites]

Everything I have written creatively has been inspired by things people have said to me in conversation. Someone once told me they brushed their teeth using hot water. My mind immediately started racing and that anecdote was strange enough to spawn an entire story. The teeth brushing part was in the end a very minor part of the story. I'm not sure of the psychology of it, but my mind is fired by details like this and then I write, probably because it's unusual (but not obviously contrived) detail that I look for in fiction. I don't think of a wider picture/storyline then flesh out the details, I build from the bottom so to speak. I write from the details until I have assembled a completed story, however bad. Then I chop and change until there is overall cohesion. Then back to ironing the details, and so back and forth until the whole thing "works."

I guess I am the opposite to you. I have no urge to sit and write unless an idea really strikes me, then I go at it until I am satisfied. It will depend on the individual and IMO, it's hard for people to explain inspiration to others. Having said that, the short answer would be to drastically change your approach to anything other than what you do now! Try ignoring the blog for a while and work every day on the more substantial stuff. Also, get out and interact with people as much as you can. People call all sorts of inanimate objects or natural events "inspirational," but real inspiration, not to mention work that resonates, comes from knowledge of, and interaction with, other humans.
posted by fire&wings at 5:45 PM on January 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Context: I'm a professional screenwriter. I wrote the movie SYLVIA. The following works for me. I'm not saying it will work for anything else.

Start with three sentences representing the beginning, middle and end of your story.

Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back.

Woman buys house. House turns out to be haunted. Woman defeats ghosts.

Those are dumb examples but you get the idea.

You already have a finished story. You just need to expand it now.

You expand it by doing the exact same thing.

Take each sentence and expand it into three sentences.

So you write the beginning of the beginning, the middle of the beginning, and the end of the beginning.

So Boy meets girl becomes:

Family moves house. Boy is lonely. Boy meets girl who is next-door-neighbor.

or whatever.

You know where I am going with this next, right?

You keep doing the beginning/middle/end thing over and over again.

Family moves house becomes: Boy lives with parents. Parents divorce. Boy forced to move with mother to new town.

And so on. Pretty soon you have every event in your story mapped out. Then you can write it for real. In fact, you will discover that you have already written most of it.

The great, huge virtue of this is that you always have a finished story, and you are just filling it out. Of course sometimes things change, and at a certain point you just write, forgetting about the top-down thing... but it's like scaffolding that you can eventually discard.

I've used this for every script I've ever written.

Serious writing is a serious business, like building a house. You don't expect a builder to just get out of bed and start building.
posted by unSane at 5:48 PM on January 15, 2006 [384 favorites]

Get over the FEAR. FEAR of failing, FEAR of succeeding, FEAR of wasting years on a project which may never be realised.

It's not inspiration you lack, it's the fear that whatever ideas you do come up with aren't worth the time and full-on attention it will require. Inspiration is way overrated anyway. You said you're a good writer, take a dull idea and force it to be entertaining!
posted by rinkjustice at 5:49 PM on January 15, 2006 [3 favorites]

Wow, what could be more inspiring that having comments made by the great snsranch (kidding) AND an accomplished screen writer!

The three of us should do lunch sometime, perhaps in Seoul?
posted by snsranch at 6:50 PM on January 15, 2006

1. Perhaps you're expecting too much at this point? You sound like you're trying to do something new and haven't figured out how to shift those gears yet.

2. You say you favor writing about real life events, but in you know very few people in this new, yet foreign home of years. Perhaps get out and mingle? You've got a whole new culture and country to explore for a year or two, go nuts, dig into it.

3. Since you were a journalist, treat these essys like your past work, with deadlines and certain structures? Do you need or feel more comfortable with being told what to write?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:58 PM on January 15, 2006

Brittanie- what a fantastic post- I have the exact same problem- good writer, not always a lot of creativity, and trouble finding endings.

Thanks scody, for the link- just ordered. And unSane, the beginning/middle/end trick is something I plan on putting into practice once I get my next idea. :)
posted by Meredith at 7:36 PM on January 15, 2006

You're an American (I guess) in Korea, and you can't find anything to write about? Go outside, watch Koreans, really watch them, like you're an alien from another planet trying to discover more about these fascinating creatures. Then write about it.

I recently read Ursula Le Guin's book about writing, "Steering the Craft", and I found it to be excellent. You may well benefit from it.
posted by jellicle at 8:08 PM on January 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

unSane's idea is very good. I follow similar, yet less structured approaches.

Outlines are great, even if you don't stick to them. I outline a lot of ideas, simple bullet points of terse statements just to establish plot points. I find that once I've figured out the the main and supporting story arcs to some degree of detail, the rest becomes "expressing" the story that you had already created.

I also like to go into obsessive details about the realities of my characters' lives. Maps and floorplans are a personal favorite. I need to know what kind of neighborhood my character lives in, where he goes to buy milk, what the corner bar is like. As well, floorplans of where my characters live--if, say, the bedroom can be seen while sitting on the couch, whether the there is hardwood or carpet, what the pattern on the kitchen linoleum looks like. I've found that while such things may never make it into the final narrative, having these details on hand create a much more realistic and fruitful picture in your mind to draw from.

Finally, I find that sketching scenes can be very helpful. For example, I might have an idea that is unrelated from the beginning or end of a story that I am working on. I'll do a quick down-and-dirty draft of the scene, just to move the narrative from point A to point B. After a few revisions, it may become something useful, or it might lead into a new story. Or it may wind up in the unfinished drafts pile. For me personally, the result doesn't matter--as long as I continue to keep writing.

Above all else read, and read critically. If it's short stories that you're into, there are tons of good literary journals out there that publish solid work by well-known and unknown writers. Novels, poetry, screenplays--it's all out there, just waiting for you. Lately, when I've been getting stuck, I'll pick up one of my favorite authors (Don DeLillo has been a fave of late), and open to a random page. After perusing a couple dozen paragraphs, I'll get that sense of "ah, that's how it's done!" and find ample inspiration to get back to the keyboard and keep pounding. Read. Write. Repeat.
posted by slogger at 8:23 PM on January 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you haven't written a lot of fiction because you're hesitant to start without a killer idea. I am a professional writer, mostly of nonfiction, and I felt the same way when I started pursuing fiction seriously. It was almost debilitating. I think this is common for writers of nonfiction who wish to start writing fiction. We are accustomed to having the whole story known. Planned in our heads before we sit down at the computer.

When you are just starting out, it's very important that you don't wait for a blockbuster idea. Just say, "Today, I am going to write something fiction. Start out with any kind of idea and get the juices flowing. Those seemingly seventh-grade exercises? They're not. Most fiction can be boiled down to some extremely basic plot structure: man versus man, man versus nature, man versus himself, man versus society, etc. So don't disregard those prompts--just DON'T force yourself to make an entire story out of them at first. You'll paralyze yourself with fear.

Also, I recommend that you start writing fiction based on things you mentally collect--interesting things someone said to you, weird things you saw, anything that struck you. Carry around a small notepad and make notes. Then start writing a story about them. If you don't finish, fine. (Most people don't write a whole short story in one sitting.) But save each document so you can come back to it later. You just might, and it might be easier to write about later.

Finally, I would suggest The Pocket Muse by Monica Wood. It is filled with prompts that are a little more complex: "Write a sex scene and make it funny." "Your character is being followed." "Write about a simple board game that turns its players into pie-eyed cutthroats." "Write about a roll of film that has been obtained surreptitiously." "Write about an ordinary ritual in which something goes terribly wrong." "Someone has left a note on a car windshield."

Good luck!
posted by lilybeane at 8:43 PM on January 15, 2006 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Given that I spend most of my days at home (working as a housewife) and know very little [I assume you meant "few", right?] people here, there is not a lot of material in my own life to choose from right now.

Wow. Just... wow. I'm inclined to say that if there aren't a dozen aspects of your exact situation inspiring you right now, then you're not destined to be a writer. Try looking at your situation from a different perspective, because I'm seeing all sorts of tiny threads to pull on.

Could your problem be an internal editor, killing off ideas before you've had any time to develop them? I've had a ton of ideas that I know, even as I write them, are total crap. But I write them anyway. Some times they remain crap, sometimes they contain a line or a concept worth using in something else, and sometimes they inspire other ideas as I go along. There are a number of story fragments I've retained for years before I've found a perfect home for them. Try joining a writing group that has monthly assignments or the like. There are many on the net, and I'm sure I've seen some questions here about them suggesting good ones. A little forced feedback from others could help you overcome that internal editor and gives you a chance to take a second look at what you've written.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 10:23 AM on January 16, 2006 [3 favorites]

Embrace the crap. Love the crap. And for the love of God, write the freakin' crap. Not only does it get it out of your head, but it makes the living sentences pop.

A lot of good stuff has already been said. Try it. Try all of it. And keep in mind that the silver bullet for one piece might not be the same for the next. Words are flighty and don't always follow the same path twice.

If you're trying your hand at ficition, you don't have to start with a plot. You can start with a character. (Google will have resources for creating one.) Create a character you love, but are willing to put through the fire. Don't worry about getting the specifics correct. The more you use (write about/with) this character, the more she will reveal herself to you.

Then, introduce an event, person, animal, conversation, etc. that challenges this character in some way. Let the character dictate what happens. If she wants to pull a banana gun out of her purse, let her pull a banana gun out of her purse. If he wants to drink a gallon of syrup, let him do it. You may churn out thirty pages of crap before getting to a sentence that clicks the story into place. The thirty pages may never make their way into the final draft, but they were by no means futile. If you hadn't written the thirty pages of crap, you would never have gotten to that key sentence.

This and other chunks of writing wisdom can be found in Anne Lamont's Bird by Bird. Very good read filled with excellent advice for writers. Also, check out the website for National Novel Writing Month. Good stuff.
posted by hercatalyst at 12:39 PM on January 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

A few bits of advice from another professional writer:

1. The beginning of a story is often the most difficult place to start. It can be like trying to introduce someone you've never even seen, much less met. Plow right into somewhere near the middle. Sometimes the important thing is to just get something down on paper, just to make it not so...blank.

2. The building/scaffolding metaphor is one that hits me all the time, often combined with #1. You thrown up a building (story/book), then decide you want to change the second floor (chapter/section). Now the second floor looks great, but it makes the fourth floor look crappy. The new fourth floor makes it obvious you're going to need a better-looking roof, which your original door doesn't match, so...eventually you have a solid building, made of none of the parts you started with. But you had the structure to hold in place each piece as you tweaked it to perfection. (See also 30 pages of crap).

3. Keep in mind the title of one of the chapters in Annie Lamott's (excellent) book on writing Bird by Bird, which is "Shitty First Drafts."
posted by gottabefunky at 11:17 PM on January 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

I just want to thank unSane for that incredible comment. I've always had problems with plotting, but this technique seems like a brain-dead tool to help me along.
posted by ooga_booga at 5:23 PM on January 17, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks all for the comments. I'm not so interested in reading whole books on the topic, since reading will only help me to procrastinate more, but the real-life examples you have posted will be tested in the very near future.

Again, thanks for all the advice. Happy writing!
posted by Brittanie at 6:44 PM on January 17, 2006

Brittanie: All of my ideas (however few they are) seem really contrived and dull. I can come up with a good start for a story but not an ending. It's not motivation that's my problem — it's inspiration.

This is a lesson I recently learned. Or, maybe that I'm still learning... but that's another story.

Your ideas may feel contrived and dull for no more reason than the simple fact that they're yours. They've been banging around in your head, and they feel dodgy and thin and... well, obvious.

Never be afraid to state the obvious! What to you is patently clear (or contrived, or dull) might just be altogether original and daring to your reader, if for no other reason that your thoughts will have a new home in which to run and play... in the undiscovered country of your reader's mind.

By all means, apply the spiffy structural samples offered above... there's a few I'm going to play with, that's certain. But while you're trying them out, state the obvious. Forget substance... be mundane.

You may be surprised what you discover.
posted by deCadmus at 10:20 PM on January 17, 2006

If unSane's way of working appeals to you, but you need something a little more rigid, you might consider using The Snowflake Method . Good luck!
posted by Siberian Mist at 1:21 AM on January 18, 2006 [2 favorites]

I don't have any help but wanted to thank you for asking the question. I'm in exactly the same boat: I'm a journalist who writes well and finds great joy in rhythms and nuances - oh the kick when you find the right word! - and yearns to write fiction. I just never can. I don't even get ideas for stories or scenes, it's that bad. Long ago, I gave up and figured if I ever did write anything substantial it would be a non-fiction. But this thread has inspired me to give it another shot. I especially like the idea of that book of exercises.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:43 AM on January 18, 2006

I'm not a professional writer (yet) - but I have aspirations. In the meantime, I write what I can, when I can, mainly as hobby. But I too sympathize with your post.

I've had the opportunity to meet one of my writing inspirations - Dave Barry, a Pulitzer winner - on a couple of occasions, one of which he actually sat and had drinks with me and a few of my friends.

He said something that has really stuck with me (paraphrasing) - "write what you love, not what you think people will buy."

So...what is it that you love? Writing about that should come relatively easy for you, considering your experience level.
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:07 AM on January 18, 2006

Immediately read The Midnight Disease, about writer’s block and hypergraphia. It is not a self-help book but an explanation by a neurologist and writer, and it is beyond fantastic. (Coverage.)
posted by joeclark at 2:17 PM on January 18, 2006

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