Releasing the Mental Brakes: Where Ideas Come From

One of the greatest challenges facing any writer is to create original, fresh, compelling prose. But where do these ideas come from?

Students often say they don’t know what to write about. Workshop attendees often sit quietly, staring at the blank page or at the wall across the room, willing inspiration to strike. Even when given writing prompts, people often feel paralyzed, unsure where and how to start.

Part of this hesitation arises out of fear – fear of sounding stupid, fear of looking foolish, fear of disappointing someone (or self), fear of one’s own memories and reality, and on and on. Fear in this situation is a powerful de-motivator that slams the brakes on the imagination before the garage door can even be opened. You may have experienced this feeling once or twice, even if you are a skilled and practiced writer.

One way to release those annoying mental brakes is to logically and practically think about where ideas come from in the first place. There is no magic pill, no silver bullet, no spoon. Instead of showering you with vague advice about how “ideas come from everywhere!”, I will instead give you three practical locations for ideas. These are not the only places where ideas may be found, but they are good places to start.

1. Family

Ah, family. We love them, we hate them. They support us and infuriate us. We want to spend the holidays with them and yet we want to throw them out windows a half an hour after we arrive because Dad started in on politics again and now he’s yelling and Mom’s cringing and cousin is crying…I guarantee you have the same situation, only with different players and actions. Is it tricky to write about family? Yes. No way around that. But they are also our most reliable and steadfast source of writing material. From that camping trip gone haywire when you were nine to the summer your brother almost drowned to the way your dad makes you feel when he puts you down. Everything that has ever happened to you in your family is fair game for writing. My favorite quote is from Anne Lamott (it’s on my office door!), and I share it with students and writer friends and workshop participants all the time: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” My students always laugh when I tell them this, but that also leads to deep discussion about why this is so true, especially for writers searching for those elusive ideas.

Is it easy? No. Is it comfortable? No. Will it always (ALWAYS) provide an endless and unfailing well of ideas? Yes.

2. Experience

Whether you built a shed with your own two blistered hands from scratch, or you taught someone how to read, or you had a baby, or you ate sushi for the first time last night, you have thousands of experiences. Students often complain that their experiences aren’t exciting. I tell them to go have more adventures. Try something new. Do something they’ve never done before. Attempt to overcome a fear. Travel someplace new. Meet a new person. Go to a coffee shop and eavesdrop. Do something. DO something. LIVE! As long as you aren’t a total hermit who has no friends and never goes anywhere, you have an abundance of experiences from which to pull really great story ideas. If you are a linear thinker, go back in time and pick a point on your personal timeline. Think about what was going on in your life at that time: who did you know, what did you enjoy, where did you learn, how did you get around? If you are a nonlinear thinker, think about something you enjoy doing, say cooking. Now think about all of the cooking moments in your life – the people who have taught you to cook, helped you to cook, ruined your cooking, and enjoyed your cooking. Think about when you first learned how to cook – who taught you? Think about the last thing you tried to cooked, but failed miserably. What went wrong? What will you do differently?

No matter what the experience, ideas are embedded there, waiting to be found. You just have to start thinking and looking.

3. Writing prompts.

I can imagine people rolling their eyes at this one, but hear me out. If the first two fail you (and they shouldn’t), or you just want to try something different and out of your comfort zone, try a writing prompt. Prompts are everywhere, from sites like mine to books and blogs and web sites and teachers and friends. Even news stories can be used as a prompt. Think about all of the news stories you read that seem to have some question or mystery underlying the situation: What leads someone to pick up a gun and shoot up a movie theater or gym or school? Why are women still represented as sexual objects in 21st century American advertising? How can anyone in the conflicted Middle East feel at ease with the constant wars? All you really need is a question. Start answering it. Yes, I know you aren’t an expert on Middle East politics, but do you really think you have to be to explore the question I posed? Of course not, because as you start to haltingly piece together an answer that sounds somewhat intelligent, your mind will start firing and making connections and suddenly, you’ll have a flash of insight about how uncomfortable you felt this one time when this person did this thing to you and it felt like a personal war and….see how that happens? And trust me, it happens frequently when you employ writing prompts.

The prompt may become secondary very quickly to what you end up writing. The story you want to tell is buried behind a wall of hesitance – you just need to find a way to open the door.

No go release those mental brakes – no excuses! 🙂

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One Comment on “Releasing the Mental Brakes: Where Ideas Come From

  1. Pingback: Pitching stories | Amanda Morris, Ph.D.

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