Writer’s Block Doesn’t Exist – Part 5: Death of Ideas

 

“Your head’s like mine, like all our heads; big enough to contain every god and devil there ever was. Big enough to hold the weight of oceans and the turning stars. Whole universes fit in there! But what do we choose to keep in this miraculous cabinet? Little broken things, sad trinkets that we play with over and over. The world turns our key and we play the same little tune again and again and we think that tune’s all we are.”

— Grant Morrison

0. PREVIOUSLY

All right, David, brings us up to speed:

By now you may have the activity-part of writing down, but maybe you feel you are still missing a kind of you-ness; a  recognizable voice with enough originality to stand on its own. You look, and you look, and there seems to be nothing ‘you’ – no truth to speak, no solid ground to kick off from – only mush and mist.

Have you not found your artistic voice yet? Are you uncertain you ever will? You are not alone in having these thoughts.

Today, Casper has two urgent questions for you:

  1. Is it important for you that you find your voice?
  2. Why or why not?

1. META

Imagine a dimly lit room. There’s a desk on which sits a laptop. In front of the desk, there’s a chair on which sits a writer. The writer leans back in the seat, squinting eyes, and sighs. The heart and the soul crave expression, but for the longest time not a single idea surfaces in the mind. Hours go by, and the writer stares at the empty file flickering on the screen. The file stares back.

Ironically, that describes more or less how I was sitting at my computer before I actually started writing these lines (although it certainly wasn’t as dramatic as the above description might imply). It’s like the universe set me a little challenge: “So you want to write about the fear of running out of ideas? Well, suck on this, dude!”

And it’s true. Before I started writing, all I had was a vague notion. I had no concrete arguments, no outline, no plan whatsoever. In fact, I wasn’t sure how to broach the topic at all. And yet, sooner rather than later, my fingertips found the keys, and have since been composing these lines. The staring contest between the screen and myself has ceased. In this moment I don’t even see the screen anymore. Instead, I see my own thoughts in my open mind’s eye; they appear to me as patterns and strings, and they are connecting. As I pen this very sentence—right here, right now—the essay has started to write itself.

***

The fear of running out of ideas can be a serious problem that potentially leads writers to believe they’re suffering from a writer’s block. But, seeing as the world around us is a constant source of inspiration[1], and therefore keeps on feeding us with new topics to talk about, I’ve always wondered to what extent it is realistic that anyone ever runs out of ideas. To me, it’s mostly a matter of recognizing ideas when they come to you, as well as coming to understand yourself a little better. The more in tune you are with yourself, the easier it becomes to figure out what to focus on in your work.

Think of it like this: the world is constantly changing. There’s always something in the news; there are always artists producing inspiring works; there are always new experiences ahead of us, every step of the way: that is life. As we get older and continue to experience things, we constantly learn and adapt and grow.

Some say people don’t change, but in my opinion that isn’t entirely true. While I do think the deepest foundation of our psyches remains constant, that doesn’t entirely rule out any possibility of change. Moreover, the changes we undergo may not always be salient, and therefore it may seem as though no change occurs at all. Yet on a micro-level we might change our opinions on certain topics. Maybe we learn to love new food, or music, or start hanging out with different people. There are those who slip into a depression, or overcome a depression, or finally attain a state of happiness. It’s even possible to move from atheism to some form of spirituality, or the other way around, or anything in between. And I think these changes hinge on energetic shifts occurring within us.

What I have observed within myself is that my mood certainly influences the way that I act toward others and myself, and it can determine the choices that I make throughout that day. All choices have consequences, and every choice we make contributes to shaping us into the person that we will become, just as all past choices we’ve made contributed to becoming who we are now.

I believe that who we are consists of all of these aforementioned aspects. Where a computer consists of hardware components and software programs—it isn’t just a single solid object—so too do I think we aren’t just “who we are,” as if that’s a single entity. It seems to me that our personalities are merely components of our total being. Our opinions, our emotions—all of that—they are components too. And if one of these components breaks down, or changes its properties, or is exchanged for a different component, then that means that we aren’t completely the same anymore. We have changed, if only on a micro-level. Perhaps we are more confident than we were before. Maybe we have learned to be more caring to others. It could be that we shifted from introvert to extrovert over time. Or we’ve managed to overcome a certain fear by not letting it hold us back anymore.

Having said that, I’d like to reiterate that these changes can be so small that others might not perceive them—hell, even we, ourselves, might not always perceive them—but they’re there, and they can be seen first and foremost by ourselves, and maybe by others. Furthermore, all these small changes can lead to a major one, a so-called paradigm shift: a radical change in the way we think. Such a change can influence who we are as well, not in the least because it determines up to a point how we identify ourselves, and also the belief systems that we adopt. That’s the process of life in a nutshell if you ask me: learn, adapt, grow—change.

This leads us back to the notion of energy. In Part 3 of this series, Talent and Practice, I wrote about this very notion as well as that of energetic writers. For the full explanation, you are advised to read that essay. For now, it will suffice to say that, to me, everything is energy. Our thoughts, our emotions—our entire state of being is influenced by the energetic currents that run beneath our psyches and also physically through our bodies. Therefore, the ideas that we have depend on what type of energy we embody in a given moment. For example, if I feel happy, I’ll be more inclined to focus on positive things around me, which to a certain extent determines what kind of ideas will come to me. In such a case it can be easier for me to write comedy, or incorporate good vibes in a narrative, or set up a positive (perhaps hopeful) resolution at the end of a story. This doesn’t mean that I can’t write a sad piece in that moment if I have to, though; it just means that my time is perhaps wiser spent on writing something that matches my state of mind.

In short, embodying your current flow of energy helps to craft different types of art. That is to say, directing the energy that you feel within you onto the page. Learning to recognize the way you feel, and then harnessing that energy, can establish a solid creative foundation. Next, this foundation can be built on with ideas, thus shaping stories.

***

This leads us to the question:

Where do you get your ideas?

And this is an odd question. Many writers will simply shake their heads and say that they don’t know. Alan Moore writes in Alan Moore’s Writing For Comics: “If forced by threat of torture to give a concise answer, I’d probably say that ideas seem to germinate at a point of cross-fertilization between one’s artistic influences and one’s own experience” (7).

Anyway, if we were to zoom in on this question and really scrutinize its very core, I agree that it’s, ultimately, impossible to find an answer. But in that case we wouldn’t be focused on ideas for art, but rather asking where our thoughts originate from in the first place. Not only does this mean that we’d be over-analyzing, it’s also just not the point. Besides, it seems crystal clear to me, on a practical level, where I get my ideas from.

In a sense, this is something that I’ve already discussed in Part 2: Inspired by Spirit. In that essay, I wrote an account of how every single thing in the world inspires me. Of course inspiration is not the same as generating ideas, because we don’t need to be inspired to get new ideas, and we don’t need new ideas to feel inspired. But they can and often do go hand in hand. If you know what inspires you, it’s easier to draw ideas from that inspiration. You could for instance see something as mundane as someone sitting on a bench in a park, and that’s your idea right there. You could write about a character taking a moment to engage in philosophy. Or you could simply write about someone enjoying sunny weather. These are both valid ideas. In fact, any idea is a valid idea. There is no such thing as a bad idea when it comes to making art. There is such a thing as bad execution of ideas[2], but the positive side to this is that we can always improve our skills and make our art better; it simply depends on where you as a creator draw the line. It’s like Alan Moore says:

The nature of the idea isn’t really important, what is important is simply that there is an idea in there somewhere. It can be silly and frivolous, perhaps just a single gag idea, or it can be complex and profound. The only thing the idea should definitely be is interesting on some level or another—whether as a brief entertainment designed to hold the attention for five minutes or a lengthier and more thoughtful work (7).

Now, to my mind, it is impossible to run out of ideas precisely because ideas are everywhere. They’re literally up for grabs. Like inspiration, all it takes is that we open our eyes and look at them, consider them, and then make them our own by manifesting them into a work of art. But in saying this, I full well realize that this answer, while true for me, isn’t good enough. It’s a cop-out, because this answer in and of itself probably isn’t going to get rid of your fear. Instead, we have to work on an actual solution to this problem. Of course, to find that solution you’ll have to do most of the work yourself. Regardless, I’ll try my best to help you along. Remember, though, that change can only come from within: you have to make the choice to search for a solution, and your solution could differ from mine as we’re all unique individuals.

2. CHALLENGE

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the “running out of ideas” part is almost irrelevant to the actual problem that lies just beneath the surface. Let’s say that the actual problem stems from the “fear” part of the sentence. And that’s where it gets paradoxical.

“The fear of running out of ideas” is an idea on its own. More specifically, if you tell yourself you’ll be out of ideas at some point, that whole notion is in fact spawned by an earlier idea. Namely, the idea that you’re starting to become clueless about what to do next. However, while that is rather negative, it isn’t entirely pointless.

If you really don’t know what to write about anymore, you could always tell the story of a writer that’s convinced that they’re suffering from a writer’s block (which could honestly make for a compelling story if done right). I actually pulled a similar trick when writing energy[3] was flowing through me and I felt driven to write lyrics for my band, but I just didn’t know what to put down exactly. I ended up writing about not knowing what to write about, and thus the song “Cluelessness” was born. But, in my opinion, this is a one-time trick. Once it’s pulled, it’s out there, and next time something new has to be dreamed up. Now, if you’re someone who wants to write about the same stuff all the time—which is fine!—this may not apply to you. Your chosen topic must be fascinating enough to keep you coming back.[4]

So, let’s shift our focus to the fear mechanism, and have us a discussion. Before we begin, one more time, this is not an easy fix for people to overcome their fear. I am not a psychologist; I am a writer. I’ll add that I’m speaking from personal experience as well: the ideas proposed below work for me, so the best I can do is share them. What follows is intended to invite discussion, if only with yourself. The “fear of running out of ideas” needs to be challenged.

***

First of all, of course I’ve feared things. And every time it seemed to me that the only way out was to face those fears[5]. By facing fears, I was able to identify them. Once I identified them, and understood why they existed, I could find a way to deal with them, mainly by consciously deciding to act despite being afraid. You see, in order to challenge “the fear of running out of ideas,” we need to be honest with ourselves. We need to look in the metaphorical mirror and ask ourselves a question:

Why am I afraid that I’ll run out of ideas?

I see two possible ways to go about answering the question. The first is to rationalize your fear. This involves uncovering the reason behind your fear, and then, once this reason is discovered, solving the problem. For example, it could be that your fear can be traced back to a larger issue: being scared to move outside of your comfort zone. Perhaps you’ve grown so accustomed to one specific way of writing that, somehow, you feel like you’re starting to repeat yourself. This can lead to thinking that you’re running out, but what it really means is that you have to look for new ways to express yourself.

The second is trickier. What if you can’t rationalize your fear? What if it’s something that exists on an energetic level only? What if, despite rationalizing your fear, it persists? In that case it’s important to realize that the “fear of running out of ideas” should never be seen as a blockage. On the contrary, being faced with fear can be seen as an opportunity to choose which path you want to take next. Either you can choose to succumb to the fear and perhaps even give up writing, or you can choose to keep at it despite being afraid, even if your fear doesn’t diminish; there’s no reason to quit just because you’re afraid. The choice is yours. It always was.

3. SIMPLE

Let’s take this a step further. If you’re unsure why you’re afraid that you’re running out of ideas, then the logical follow-up question is:

Why are you unsure?

Is it because you can only feel it, but not quite know it? If that’s the case, then it seems like it’s indeed based in the emotion of fear, because fear, in this case, equals the unknown. The emotion can be useful in survival situations, but it can also be a projection of your ego and misinform you. Thereby it could lead you to think that one day you’ll be down to your last ideas. Next, we get chicken-or-the-egg bullshit as this thought conjures up the fear emotion, which creates a negative feedback loop. First the thought stirs up the emotion; then the emotion reinforces the thought.

While it can be hard to break from this loop, it’s by no means impossible. In fact, the main reason that it seems hard probably has to do with you convincing yourself that it’s hard—which is yet another negative feedback loop. However, such ping-ponging between thoughts and emotions is not a confirmation that you’re right about being out of ideas. On the contrary, it’s entirely possible that you only think so because you haven’t actively challenged the notion yet.

One way to challenge the notion is by stating to yourself that it’s all false. That you’re wrong. That you’re not out of ideas, and won’t ever run out of ideas. Next, prove this to yourself by actually writing. This doesn’t mean, though, that you have to go from scratch and somehow just force yourself to write an entire story. If you know you’re struggling with precisely this kind of stuff, it would be unwise to jump right into a new file, because you might find yourself in yet another staring contest with your computer screen. So let this be our mantra for now:

Keep it simple.

First of all, the piece doesn’t have to be long. It can be a page. It can be a paragraph. It can be a few sentences. Instead of looking at your output and chastising yourself because you didn’t manage to write a lot, congratulate yourself that you manage to write something! This is a good thing. This is progress. It’s not about quantity, it’s not even about quality—it’s about getting the creative juices flowing; it’s about writing at all. Remember that perfection is unattainable because of art’s highly subjective nature. Don’t force something to be perfect right out of the gate; instead, take your time with your piece and nourish it, love it, take care of it like it’s your baby. Delicacy over forceful perfectionism.

To put this more succinctly, in order to get into a creative mood, there are various things that I do. It mostly depends on the time of day, my environment, my company, my energy levels, even the weather. Sometimes—and this probably sounds like a bit of a cliché, but whatever, it works—I head out and go for a walk. I never have a specific route in mind, I just step outside and start roaming. And as I roam, I let my mind wander as well. I look at my surroundings, at people, at events occurring around me, and soon an idea will come to me. I find that fresh air, some movement and a constantly changing environment can really help me to come up with new things to write about.

Other times I just grab my guitar and I jam awhile. I play cover songs and/or songs I wrote myself, and sometimes I just improvise. During this process creative energy awakens within me, and once I feel like it, I put away my guitar and start writing. Then it’s but a matter of channeling that creative energy into the writing. This is, I suppose, akin to the technique of free-writing. Personally I don’t often free-write as a warm-up specifically (I usually just start writing the piece itself), but it definitely works for a lot of people. In free-writing it doesn’t matter what you put down, even if it’s gibberish. Its main purpose is to just get you in motion, to give you a feel for writing so you can seamlessly flow into the actual project.

For those who practice meditation: when I don’t really have an idea but still want to write, I close my eyes and tell myself that all the information is already in me. I use breathing exercises to clear my mind, and sooner or later I see an image in my imagination. This image can be of a character, a location, an object, or anything, really. I don’t influence what the image looks like; I just accept it for what it is as it hovers before my mind’s eye. Then I use this image as a sort of visual prompt, and start writing about it. Soon I find myself establishing a location, and characters, and a story comes to life. Never underestimate the power of day-dreaming.

Yet there’s magic in night-time dreams, too. I keep a dream journal. It takes some dedication to maintain it, but I do get a lot of ideas from dreams. Even if you don’t have enough time to keep such a journal, you could also just write down a simple bullet point of one specific image that you remember. After all, the piece of writing doesn’t have to relate to your dream. You can simply take the image from your dream and place it in a new context. As long as it works for you it’s fine.

But perhaps the easiest way is to grab a book, or a movie, or a video game, or a comic, and pay attention to what you see. This once more goes back to Part 2 of this series, Inspired by Spirit. Of course, that doesn’t mean stealing someone else’s shit, but watching a movie or reading a book can help put you in the right creative mindset. For example, my favorite fantasy series of all time is Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. Being fascinated by the way it blends magic and cowboys, I soon discovered that this is an actual literary genre. They call it weird west. As a big fantasy and western fan myself, I quickly began to feel inspired to work in that genre, and thus the Known World of Ara’Delva, my own universe, has come into existence. Now it feels like I’ll be writing about that world for the rest of my life.

A final point on this topic—which is something that Rachel, my fellow Writer’s Blocker, suggested to me, and which I think sums it all up—is that it helps to become an observer in life. If you can unplug yourself from day-to-day routine and see the world through the eyes of a child, everything seems to become more beautiful. Children have colorful ways of speaking about their experiences. Kids see ideas everywhere, whereas adults are supposed to have gone through this weird process of “growing up,” which usually means putting away your fantasy and act like you know what’s real and what’s not. But if you can channel such an enthusiastic, childlike imagination and combine that with skill, you’re basically unstoppable.

So, these are things that I do, and my suggestion is to devise your own warming-up technique. You don’t have to use any of the examples I mentioned above, and you don’t even have to have multiple techniques like I do. If you have even one that works well, you’re good to go. And of course, if any of my examples work for you, use as you like.

***

Furthermore, we have the internet at our disposal. There’s millions of writing prompts available on countless of websites dedicated to writing. All it takes is selecting a random prompt and using it as the premise of a story, an essay, a poem, or whatever you wanna write. The prompt can be about a character, it can establish a setting, or perhaps it’s a sentence to include in your piece. Don’t worry about being unoriginal, because this is not about that. This is about getting you back into writing. Once you start working with these prompts regularly, you may find that it gets easier to add your own ideas onto them, and before you know it you’ll have written a brand new piece.

So here’s a couple prompts I made up that you’re free to use, no strings attached. I’ll briefly discuss each prompt to illustrate how new ideas can be added to turn them into more unique stories.

Prompt 1: Write a story from the perspective of a bird.

Though bird metaphors have been done to death, this can in fact be a simple story about a bird flying over a city or landscape. Imagine what a location looks like from a bird’s eye view. You could also treat it as a fable and turn the bird into a character, with a personality and opinions. You could have the bird comment on what it sees as it flies around. You could even add a plot: perhaps the bird is going to a specific place? Or perhaps it’s leaving a specific place? Perhaps it’s looking for its family? Just to get you started. It really doesn’t matter what you come up with. You can even tweak the prompt as you see fit. The point is to fill in the blanks, whether they’re good ideas or not, and just start toying with them in writing. You don’t even have to complete the piece; as long as it gets you to write, the mission’s accomplished.

Prompt 2: A character is running away from a horde of animals.

When I see this prompt, my mind immediately wants to fill in the blanks. Who is the character that’s running away? Where does the character come from? What’s the character’s name? How old is the character? Boy or girl? What’s their job? How did the character end up in that situation? What kinds of animals are these? Bulls? Dogs? Dinosaurs? Maybe even dragons? These questions and their answers can range from mundane to fantastical. For instance: the character is a girl named Sue, she’s 10 years old, and she’s out with her dogs, running through the park, having fun. Or another, somewhat out-of-the-box example: the character is a dude called Tony, and he’s a space tourist on the planet of Xir An Fey, and by accident he fell out of a hover-jeep into a blue savanna, and got chased by cheetah/giraffe hybrids.

Prompt 3: Include the sentence: “When they first saw each other, the earth stood still.”

On first sight, this might seem like kind of a generic sentence, but that’s fine. If it inspires you to write a love story, by all means, go for it. Just fill in the blanks (who are “they?”; where do “they” see each other?; what happens around “them?”; etc). But of course you don’t have to write a love story. Perhaps the metaphorical earth stood still because, from the get-go, there’s mutual hate between the characters. While this sounds like a dark idea, it does open a door to social commentary, which is a rich subject of its own. That said, you could also go the ridiculous route, and literally have the earth stand still, and write about the implications. Even an idea like that can be kept simple if you stick to, for example, a household or a school—you don’t have to write about an entire city. It doesn’t even have to make sense. Again, it’s all about getting into writing mode.

All things considered, what’s most important with regards to these prompts is to not only use them to start writing, but also use them to start thinking. Ask the questions and come up with the answers. It doesn’t have to become an award winning poem or short story. It’s just to get started. The more you do this, the faster it will turn into a habit. Essentially, you’ll be practicing coming up with new ideas. After some time, you’ll reach a point where coming up with something new is a lot easier. Lastly, tweaking the prompts, asking and answering the questions, filling in the gaps—it can be a lot of fun. It’s important to focus on that fun, because then none of this will feel like work. I’ve quoted the wise Sadhguru before, but it seems fitting to do it again: “Don’t work hard, work joyfully.”

4. ONWARD

I remember reading a newspaper article quite some time ago. It was about a writer, who had, around that time, published a new novel. I can’t remember for the life of me the name of that writer, nor the title of his book, but what I do remember is that he struggled with the fear of running out of ideas. As he explained in the interview, it came to a point where he was on the verge of submitting to a writer’s block. But then his editor suggested to him to step out of his comfort zone. Instead of writing the kind of stuff that he always used to write, he tried something new, and ended up writing an entire novel.

I think this is a really good example of someone who proved to himself that we’re never without ideas. Sometimes the ideas are hard to grasp, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have them. Sometimes, rather than desperately clinging to the same old subject matter, it’s good to let go of it, and move onward to new territory.

How this works for me personally is that I don’t identify myself as a short story writer, or novelist, or poet, or non-fiction writer. To me, identifying myself as either one of these is quite limiting. Certainly, identifying myself as, say, a short story writer doesn’t mean that I can never just write a poem, but it does mean that I establish short story-writing as my comfort zone. And the thing with comfort zones is that it just feels so damn nice to stay in them, like a warm bed on a Monday morning in winter. In fact, I don’t even identify as a writer. I’m just someone who writes[6]. And what I write depends on what I feel like writing.

I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone as well. Moving into new territory opens up a whole new playground, where you can work on ideas which might not fit in your comfort zone. Writing in a different genre forces you to think differently about your writing, forces you to go where you haven’t gone before. So, if you’re “out of ideas”—just try something new.

Having said that, if you insist on staying in your zone, then even within the zone you can try new things. For example, if your thing is poetry, you can think about your style. If you’ve always worked with specific rhyme schemes, or pentameters, or sonnets, then why not try some free-form for a change? Why not remove rhyme altogether? Or try composing a dirty poem with lots of swearing, but in such a way that it’s still poetic. Within the bounds of your chosen genre, you are still absolutely free to do whatever you want; there’s nobody telling you what to do. At first all this freedom can be overwhelming, but you don’t have to try to push the boundaries of the genre. Just start thinking about new ways to express yourself, and once you figure out a new form, you can combine this with the prompt exercises to create new material. And remember: push your personal boundaries before you push those of an entire genre—just keep it simple.

And that’s it, really. This is how I’m always ready to write, and how I currently have so many ideas—for Ara’Delva as well as lots of other things—that I don’t know if I can ever write them all down in one lifetime, and I’m serious about that. The sky isn’t my limit, not even the universe. The only limit is my own mind, and the more I expand my horizon, the more I see.

5. ANSWERS

Why do you write?

What inspires you?

What makes writing fun for you?

Who do you write for?

Where do you get your ideas?

These are the five questions that I asked you throughout the series. I answered each of these questions in my own way and you aren’t expected to give me the same kind of answers. To be honest, I don’t even expect you to agree with everything that I said. In fact, I almost want you to disagree with me—as vehemently as possible—because this forces you to come up with your own opinions on the matter.

My only goal with this series has been to get you to think, and hopefully to push you to challenge the fake belief system that we call “writer’s block.” There’s nothing that anyone can say to make me believe in it, but what can be said to stop people from believing?

I think that it’s hard to prove to someone else that the writer’s block is a lie. I think it’s best if you prove it to yourself. Hence my five questions. If you can answer each of these, and then continue to think and challenge and write, there’s a conclusion awaiting you at the end of the road.

My conclusion is that it doesn’t exist.

What’s yours?

 

Works cited

Moore, Alan. Writing For Comics Vol. 1. Avatar Press, 2007.

Endnotes

[1]    See Part 2: Inspired by Spirit.

[2]    Especially if this involves inflicting harm to yourself or others. While it’s possible to craft meaningful art through this, I can’t say that I always endorse this. There’s a difference between martial arts and, say, burning yourself with a candle. Please take care of yourself.

[3]    See Part 3: Talent and Practice.

[4]    I can relate. I keep returning to Ara’Delva, a fantasy universe that I created.

[5]    In Part 4: Choir of Voices I speak about some of my fears.

[6]    See Part 3: Talent and Practice for the distinction between an egoic writer and an energetic writer/someone who writes.

casper website

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