By Mae Respicio, Program Representative in Creative Writing
I learned in a class once (a Writers’ Program class, of course!), that there is no such thing as not having anything to write about, it’s just a matter of doing a better job of observing and listening, then getting those details down on paper.
During one airport experience, I sat stuck in a dingy corner of LAX, angry at my flight, which kept getting more and more delayed. I finally struck up a conversation with the stranger next to me. I could tell she was anxious by the way she clasped her hands together. Every once in a while she tugged at her collar or quickly checked her watch. She was excited and nervous all at once. She was flying to San Francisco to see her grown daughter—they hadn’t spoken to each other in over ten years.
Stories exist all around us. Just ask any Writers’ Program instructor and they’ll agree, it’s just a matter of looking. Every once in a while you might find a gem to expand on—a character trait (or flaw), an interesting name or place, some fascinating detail that illuminates the human condition.
IDEAS ARE ALL AROUND US
“If you have a curious and wide-ranging mind and read a lot, you’ll never run short of ideas, says nonfiction writer and Writers’ Program instructor Norman Kolpas. “The more wide-ranging you are in your influences, the greater the likelihood that different, often unrelated pieces of information will strike sparks off of each other and bring you fresh ideas or fresh perspectives on old ideas.”
Sherri L. Smith, who teaches courses in Writing the Young Adult novel says, “People watching is a great way to get motivated. Go someplace new… what’s different there? Those differences can lead to exciting places in your work.”
“I find stories in everyday stuff,” says novelist and instructor Mark Haskell Smith. “The newspaper, my neighbors, things I see on the street, something a friend says. I write about people so I get my inspiration from the world around me. People are crazy. There’s never a shortage of inspiration.”
FACING YOUR BLANK PAGE
With ideas all around, it’s still not uncommon for even the most successful of writers to feel intimidated by the blank page.
Children’s author and new instructor Laurel van der Linde says, “I give no credence to ‘writer’s block.’ What we are really talking about here is fear. Sit down and start moving your fingers across the keyboard. It doesn’t have to be brilliant; just get something on the page… the important thing is to start the creative juices flowing.”
Kolpas shares an interesting perspective for aspiring writers: look at writing as your business.
“As a nonfiction writer who has made a living for many years as a freelancer, I tend to discount the notion of inspiration,” he says, “Waiting for inspiration is a luxury I can’t and won’t allow myself, as sitting around waiting for anything is time not spent earning. I try to drill that fact into my students, impressing upon them that they should approach writing as professionals should, as the job they do.”
IDEAS FOR IDEAS
There are many ways to get inspired and to get writing.
Notebook and journal observations are popular sources for ideas, prompts, titles, characters, and settings. Poet and instructor Laurel Ann Bogen shared, “I write down quotes that I run across on day-to-day expeditions into the L.A. microcosm. I then use those quotes as titles of poems and let my imagination run wild.”
Nonfiction writer and new instructor Diana Raab says, “I suggest getting up first thing in the morning and free-writing for about twenty minutes. With your morning coffee you can read the newspaper and clip out aricles or feature stories which you might be interested in writing about. In my desk drawer I keep a file of these clippings for those unexpected dry literary days.”
Many instructors also had the same three tips: read, read, and read.
“I get unstuck and find inspiration by reading the best stuff I can,” said fiction writer and short story instructor Paul Mandelbaum, who is currently waist deep into War and Peace. “It’s taking me forever, but that’s okay because every time I pick it up I notice some small thing Tolstoy does that makes me want to scurry to my computer and try to apply it to my own less-ambitious efforts.”
Raab said, “On days when I simply feel less creative, that is, when I have difficulty coming up with a good metaphor or scene description, I simply read passages from my favorite writers and poets.”
NOW… ONTO THE BLANK PAGE!
Sometimes the hardest part about writing isn’t generating ideas but it’s about getting your words started—and keeping them going.
When it comes to inspiration, novelist and creative writing instructor Les Plesko sums it up best:
“There’s too much! It’s finding the right inspiring thing then getting it on the page in a way that it inspires you to keep writing that’s always the challenge. Mostly, I find, it’s trial and error.”
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS WRITER’S BLOCK: INSTRUCTORS’ TIPS ON HOW TO KEEP THE INK FLOWING
Now that you’ve learned how some of our instructors get inspired, here are a few more tips on keeping those pages coming:
“Start at the end of a story and work backwards.”
“I get up off my butt and away from the computer. I put on some music. I take a walk. I do laundry. I go to a yoga class. Anything to stimulate my body and give my brain a rest.”
—Mark Haskell Smith
“To get unstuck, a writer needs to give herself or himself permission to do lousy work.”
“Look for an image, a mood, a run of words that thrills you. That’s where good writing begins.”
“If I’m working on a project and I get stuck at one point, I skip ahead (or go back) to a section I’m excited about and work from there.
—Sherri L. Smith
“I find that avoiding an even more repulsive task such as bill paying or DMVesque errand running keeps me writing.”
—Amy Goldman Koss