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! 🙂

Midweek Writing Prompt: Three Things You Know to be True (8/13/14)

In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.

When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.

Give it a try! 🙂


Writing Prompt: Three Things I Know to be True

This prompt was inspired by the brilliant Sarah Kay. I often show her TED Talk “If I Should Have a Daughter” to inspire my students and I love her use of this writing prompt to get kids to recognize that they, too, have valuable stories to tell.

You have 30 seconds: Write down three things you know to be true. Do NOT think too hard! This should be an immediate response – whatever comes to mind right away. (Not verifiable facts, but rather, things YOU know to be true. Think about those soul-level tidbits of knowledge that you just feel in your bones. For some inspiration and insight on this prompt, watch Sarah’s TED talk – she gives the audience this prompt after her opening performance piece.)

Now that you have your list of three things you know to be true, select the one thing that is most important. The one piece of knowledge that you can take with you to the next level – the one that is so vital, you can’t live without it.

Now that you have that one essential thing you know to be true – write about it. Maybe it will be the moment you learned the lesson that led to this knowledge. Maybe it will be a moment from the past, or maybe it just happened yesterday, but write a moment that showcases this particular bit of knowledge. Give us a scene or anecdote that shows us how and why you know this essential thing to be true.

Give it a try. You might be surprised at how much you actually know and how deeply you really know it.


Time to revise

Writing original work is obviously the lifeblood of a writer. But that’s only one part of the equation if you want to be a published writer. Just ask my students. After teaching the genre of creative nonfiction in my Advanced Composition class for four semesters, and requiring that students not only write two pieces for publication (one short, one medium-length), but also requiring that they seek out literary journals beyond our academic walls to submit to, and then requiring them to actually submit their work, several have had their stories accepted and published.

These stories all began in my class. Some from random writing prompts or class conversations, some from deep-seated ideas that were finally given permission to be released through writing in a safe and accepting space. However extraordinary it is for college students to have competitive publications while still in school, I want you to think about how they achieved this accomplishment.

Are these students struck with natural talent and genius?

Do they have some secret stash of skill that they had prior to my class?

Am I really that good?

While I would argue that all of these students do have  natural inclination towards language and writing – they are all frequent readers as well – they did not get published because of these facts. And I will acknowledge that I am a good teacher – I do help people get published, even outside of my classroom. But neither of these is the reason my students achieved publishing success. Their work was accepted for publication because they spent the time revising, receiving feedback, enacting that feedback, making more revisions, and polishing the sentences and structure to a high gloss – all within a fifteen week semester. Their acceptances came a few months later, well after the class was over.

I teach advanced writing this way, with a requirement to submit work to journals of the students’ choosing, because this is the writer’s life. Every student who enters my class has a chance to be published if they put in the time to revise and polish. I’m honest with them about this from day one and some really want it, so put in the necessary effort. Some just want a grade, and that is really okay. All of my students work hard, write, revise, and polish, but a few put in the time and energy to hit the next level. That’s all I want for them and for anyone who works with me. I want to give them the chance and the space and the opportunity to excel if they so choose.

I’m also honest with them about rejection. I encourage them to submit elsewhere if at first the piece is rejected, but I know that many of them don’t follow up this way, which is a shame. Lots of beautiful, poignant, funny, and devastating stories move through my classroom and many deserve to be shared with a broader audience. But that sharing will only ever happen if the writer is dedicated to the point of carving out time to revise every week.

Having time to write is one thing; having time to revise doesn’t sound fun, but is absolutely essential if you want to hit the next level and get published. There’s no way around this step. If you really want it…you want to be a published writer…then don’t skip this step.

When school is in session, I dedicate several hours one day each week, just for revision. It doesn’t matter if the text is an academic article destined for a peer-reviewed journal, a creative nonfiction piece for a literary journal, or a blog post for a web site.

I find the time to revise, and you should, too. You’ll be happy you did. 🙂

Purging the blockage

If you’re like me, you have some unresolved issues floating around in your brainpan. These unresolved issues have never been written about in any real or substantial way because family. I have been essentially holding my writer’s tongue for my whole life because of that nagging concern of hurting someone. However, this is the exact wrong impulse and the longer I live, write, and teach about writing, I realize almost daily how wrong that thinking is, and how detrimental not only to storytelling, but also to the spirit, the muse, the swirling neurons that become writing ideas.

What I have discovered is a revelation to me that I hope you will consider if you are in a similar headspace: Purging the blockage is necessary to move forward AND to generate fresh ideas. The unresolved issues create a block that only writing can release. For instance, I really want to write about my garden in a philosophical way. But I find myself unable to do so even when surrounded by its vitality, beauty, life, and color. During my last writing group meeting, it occurred to me that my unresolved issues are the thing blocking my ability to see clearly, and think in a philosophical and not entirely trite way about my garden. My writing group confirmed this and encouraged me to start writing to clear the blockage.

My mental block is slowly being worked out in a creative nonfiction piece that I hope will be published eventually, but even the writing of it is freeing my mind substantially from the burden. I can only encourage you to do the same. My colleague and friend has this great writing strategy that I now use sometimes – and used to create the bits and pieces for the longer anti-mental-block essay: She calls these bits and pieces “islands.” I just love this concept.

An island is a short snippet, an anecdote, a partially developed scene. A conversation. Something small, bite-sized. It may only take 15 minutes to write it out. Maybe you have a flash of insight about one moment in your story – write that island. Nothing else, just that one island. My friend has used this to great success – she showed me a large stack of printed paper the other day – the accumulation of islands she’s been writing for a couple of years now. The stack looks like a manuscript – at least in size and weight. She obviously has some work to do to bring these islands together into a longer, more cohesive piece, but what a genius idea!

However you decide to tackle your blockage, I can only recommend starting today. You will feel so much better. And with each anecdote, conversation, and moment that you write, you will feel physically lighter as the burden starts to lift. The idea of writing everyday is a romantic one and, some would say, a practical necessity for anyone who wants to be a writer. I say, do what you can when you can, but keep at it whenever you can. And don’t let the blockage fester – release it for your own benefit, even if it never sees an editor’s inbox.

Start the purge today! 🙂

Midweek Writing Prompt: What’s Your Thing? (8/6/14)

In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.

When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.

Give it a try! 🙂


Writing Prompt: What’s Your Thing?

Close your eyes and think about one thing that you know how to do so well, you are an expert. You can do this thing almost without thinking. You may have never received any formal training in this thing, but this is YOUR thing. You’re so good at it that friends and family admire you for it and sometimes ask your advice about how they can do it.

Really envision yourself doing this thing. Maybe it was the moment that you first discovered this thing. Maybe it was the moment you became skilled enough that this thing became second nature. Maybe it was a recent moment when you did this thing and something extraordinary happened as a result.

Now open your eyes and write about that thing. Any way you want, any moment you want, just start writing. See what happens.

The positive rejection

“Thank you for sending us your brief essay ‘Handlining for students’. This one came very close, up to the final round of decision making, in fact, but we’ve decided to pass.

I don’t know if that makes you feel good or if such ‘close but no cigar’ news is just hard to hear, but we have been blessed with a large number of excellent submissions lately, and hope that you understand that we can only publish a small fraction of the material we receive.

We hope that you will consider us again”


I received the above rejection in January 2013 for a piece that I wrote in the Fall of 2012. Publishing takes time and as you likely have heard, rejection is part of the game. However, falling apart and giving up when your work is rejected is the wrong response. (Note that I said your WORK was rejected…not you…an important distinction.)

Editors and editorial boards have many personalities and quirks and likes and dislikes, in addition to the myriad goals they might have for a given issue or series of issues. Yes, your work may not be up to their standards, but it is also likely that the reasons your work was rejected is because it just didn’t fit. This is a hard reality to swallow because writers have a penchant for internalizing wounds. And often, we perceive rejection of our writing as a wound. That’s not healthy, so you need to work on that and start concentrating on those positive rejections.

(Did she just say positive rejection?)

Yes, I did. A positive rejection is like the one I shared here. Notice the second sentence – that’s the important piece that elevates this rejection above a form letter:

“This one came very close, up to the final round of decision making, in fact, but we’ve decided to pass.”

If your mind is in the right space and you are willing to accept that there are different types of rejections, then focus on the first two parts of that statement. My piece came “very close,” it made it to the “final round”…stop.

That gives me great hope. In fact, it inspired me to send it, unrevised, to another publication. They responded in a similar positive way – my piece was debated and discussed, but ultimately didn’t make it. In fact, this second journal also added that they would like to see more work from me in the future. That’s the golden ticket of rejections – an open door to submit more work.

Note the final sentence in my positive rejection above: “We hope that you will consider us again.

You may think editors say this to every writer. Trust me, they don’t. They only make such statements when they really do want to see more of your work.

Every writer needs these type of rejections because newly opened doors and people who like what you write are your ticket to future publications. I can’t tell you how many people I know who get this kind of golden ticket rejection and stop. They don’t submit the positively rejected piece anywhere else and they don’t submit anything new to the editors who asked them for more. If we work together and you try to do this, I won’t let you.

When you write for publication, strive for polished, clear prose, but don’t revise it to death. You don’t want to kill the passion and spark of your initial idea, but you do want to revise enough to get a positive rejection. Because that is an important accomplishment and necessary step toward publication. The positive rejection assures you that you are doing something right, and reminds you to keep going, no matter how much it stings.

Persistence, perseverance, and positive rejections, people! 🙂

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