Prompting Ideas

I became the Monday columnist at Write Anything on February 9th last year. To celebrate one year of writing weekly about writing, here is the first article I posted. From henceforth I will be posting my old articles here every Monday.

where-ideas-come-fromIdeas for writing come from all sorts of places.

I have to admit, personally, coming up with ideas for what to write is something I have always struggled with.  Good, original, sustainable ideas that capture and hold the reader seem even rarer in my world. That’s why when I returned to the page in October 2007 and was directed here to Fiction Friday by my wonderful friend Danae, I thought all my Christmases had come at once.  I didn’t have to think up the idea – just had to gestate and put down the story.

Left to my own devices – I would probably write very little. I would always be searching for the ‘perfect idea’ and let’s be honest – there is no perfect idea. Prompts bypass the need for perfectionism and allow writers, like me, to do what they’re best at – write!

It’s not always easy though. Using a prompt as the impetus for a piece of work can challenge you – especially if there is no light bulb moment to assist you in those first few minutes after reading the prompt.  It can almost be more frustrating than having no idea at all.

Sometimes you’re lucky, other times you’re not. There are weeks when I stare at the Fiction Friday prompt and feel like an unlucky fisherman, continually casting and dragging in nothing but a slightly nibbled piece of bait. In these moments I begin the freak out and lose faith in my abilities as a story teller.

Who cares – it’s just Fiction Friday – the world won’t stop rotating on its axis if I don’t post (even if I have committed to writing one a week).  But if I give up because a prompt is too hard, the idea wont come, the story isn’t clear, the characters are ambiguous or I don’t like them, it sets up a negative avoidance pattern for when things get tough.  And I don’t need for my journey.  After all it’s rarely smooth sailing all the way.

It’s good to have a back up plan for these times, rather than rely on luck, serendipity or begging or the return of your creative inspiration to get you through.

Jennie Cromie in her New Year’s post No-Fail Freelance Resolutions: How to succeed in 2009 talks about planning for low motivation days.  She writes:

“There will be days when you wake up all motivated and ready to tackle your daily goals, and then several hours later—for some inexplicable reason—you’ll feel like throwing your hands up in the air and chucking the goal, the novel, the article, or whatever you’re trying to accomplish. I call these the “F*&k-Its.” You have to decide how you’re going to handle these moments ahead of time. Because no matter how much you think you want to achieve that dream of yours right now, I guarantee that there will come a time when that shiny new goal of yours becomes a pain in the you-know-what .. The key is to maintain the forward motion toward your goal, no matter how imperfect that forward motion is.”

So what about a Plan B?

In moments of extreme creative drought I’ve turned to my writing oracle. Women Who Run With Wolves is a feminist psychoanalytic exploration of fairy stories – mainly very old ones to do with women’s rites of passages. When I first got it (a wonderful $10 buy at bookstore that helps to support a women’s shelter in my home town of Cairns) and began reading, a friend told me that it could be used for bibliomancy. That is, you can hold a problem in your head, open to a page and find some wisdom to mull over. More recently my soul sister told me that she’d it in the same way as a writing oracle.

Since learning of this useful trick I’ve turned to it twice. The most successful was the creation of Demon Lover (inspired via a dream from a paragraph in the story The Red Shoes) – a short story that I actually sold last year! It’s a good fall back, when the flow of ideas dam or dry up.

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way suggests that if you’re stuck or blocked to mend a piece of clothing or to bake something – the physical process of fixing and mixing works at a creative/unconscious level. A friend of mine swears by this, as she does about knitting to keep the creative flow moving. Sewing, cooking and knitting are not everyone’s cup of tea though.

Mundane, everyday, repetitive tasks have the ability to still the mind. Many artists and writers say their best ideas/plot revelations/characters developments happen in the shower, while hanging clothes on the line, driving the car or walking.

Other useful ways to generate forward motion with an idea (or in the idea-less vacuum):

  • Just write – it doesn’t matter if it is bad or indifferent.  The simple act of writing generates momentum.  Writing badly is painful – but it’s not nearly as awful as not writing at all.
  • Create a scrapbook that you keep handy, where you can write down things or glue images that you like: words, sentences, ideas, plot, characters, colours, poetry, images etc.  They don’t have to have any real shape or purpose – just things that strike you as being interesting.
  • Make friends with your bad/imperfect ideas. Like new friends – give them a chance and they may just surprise you.
  • Put your music on random and take the first line of the first ten songs and try to create something from that. Or listen to your favourite album, or something from a friend or partners collection that you have never listened to and do the same. Or just let the music wash over and through you.
  • Keep a record of your dreams.  Some of the best stories have deep roots in the dream sphere.  Even if they are just snippets or glimpses rather than a whole story downloaded to you while you sleep.
  • Have a word bucket – as described by Andrea.
  • Go for a walk – take your muse out for some fresh air and a new perspective.
  • Indulge in your favourite mundane task – wash the dishes, fold the washing, take a shower, hide away in the toilet.  You know what works best for you.
  • Do something else that is creative – play a musical instrument, doodle, paint, dance, sculpt, take some photos.  Change your clothes, re-do your hair, wear a silly hat (this was the favourite source of stress relief for one of the girls my partner used to work with!)
  • And remember that writing is meant to be enjoyable.

Having a list handy of the things that help to stir your creativity is a useful tool – a Plan B, for the moments when writers block hits or the ideas just refuse to come. Type it up, write it out, make it pretty, make it practical – but stick it up somewhere you can see it.  If it’s filed away in the bottom of your desk draw it’s not going to be any use … you’ll forget it’s there in your frustration.

Sometimes writers need safety nets. We may as well weave ones with plenty of spring to propel us upwards and onwards.

What tricks do you use to feret out ideas for writing? How do you keep the creative juices flowing, and your ideas alive and brilliant?

Thanks to Eamon and Tricksie Pixie who shared their creative prompts with me last year.

Image: Where Ideas Come from by Natalie Dee

#140 Focus and Quill

#140/365, originally uploaded by tigerlily4865.

The oil is a hangover from NaNo and sits on my altar on my desk. It is made up of peppermint, rosemary,basil, black pepper and lemon (and is actually far nicer to smell than it sounds)

The quill and ink well in the foreground is a Swarovski minature given to me by my friend Jo, back in 1995 when we were working for Captain Cook Cruises. It has spent its entire life in the box, until a few weeks ago I finally found where it had been stored and bought it out for my writing altar.

Friday Flash: Perspectives of Sand

My sandals!

The words jerk out of my throat the same way Mum’s pulling my arm out of the socket as she drags me across the sand.

My sandals!

But she doesn’t hear me. Neither does Dad. They’re too busy arguing and juggling bags, my bucket and spade, the umbrella, esky and towels up the beach. Too caught up in their adult stuff to notice me.

How you could not see it?

I swear I only turned away for a second.

You were watching the girls out in the water who were topless. Don’t deny it.

There’s a silence that makes me uncomfortable – hurts more than the hot sand.

How the hell can I trust you if you can’t even keep an eye on your own daughter? For five minutes? That’s all I was gone. FIVE MINUTES!

I got distracted.

You saw the chicks with their tits out, miles away in the surf, but missed the guy flashing his dick right in front of our daughter. You’re un-be-lieveable.

Then it’s quiet again. The sand squeaks as we stumble towards the car park. Behind is the crash of the Too-Big-For-Me Waves, the babble of Happy Families having fun on the beach. Back there, not up here where the sand bites.

My feet are burning and my arm feels like it’s stretched too far. I want someone to pick me up, but there’s no room for me in either of their arms.

This isn’t going to work.

I said I’m sorry.

Dad’s voice is sort of angry – sort of sad.

I left my sandals behind. They’re my favourite.

Shush, Lilianna – please. Sorry’s not good enough this time Craig. You promised you’d behave like a responsible adult. You’re a father. A grown up. And you still can’t act like either.

YOU’RE NOT LISTENIN’. Mum. Dad. STOP! My sandals.

Dad was standing beside me as I sat in the sand digging and filling up my bucket, safe in The Shallows from the Big Waves. I was happy. We were all at the beach. Actually all here together. Mum in her yellow bikini looking beautiful. Dad in his crazy orange boardshorts.

I was watching the way the sand twinkled sometimes in the sun. The magic way the water filled up where I had dug.

Then Mum swooped down, half-picking me up, screaming at Dad, half-dragging me from The Shallows, up to our umbrella. She shoved all our stuff into bags, not worrying about shaking out the sand.

I don’t want to go home. But she wasn’t listening. In a rush like the other Mums the day the storm came, only she stopped to shake the sand out then.

It’s something I’ve done. It’s my fault they’re arguing again. I want to say sorry – but my sandals.

I cry. It’s too hot for my feet. The car park bites worse than the sand. I don’t blubber softly like I should. I wail. I’m loud. People walking a dog stare.

Not NOW Lili-an-nah.

The boot is up and I’m sobbing, hopping from foot to foot.

For Christ sakes Vicki – where are Lilianna’s sandals? Here baby.

He tosses the umbrella in the boot and picks me up. Hugs me. I’m sandy and so is he. The little hairs on his chest tickle. My bikini’s up my bum and my feet still burn, dangling above the fire in the ground.

Do your feet hurt, baby?

I nod – tears wet on my hot cheeks.

Like .. eggs .. in .. the .. frypan. I’m hiccuping between each word.

I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening. He looks like he’s sorry – not like when Mum says she’s sorry.

My sandals – my favourites. They’ve got daisies on them. That’s what they are, aren’t they Mum? The white flowers with the yellow bits in the middle of them. Nanna gave them to me when you went away last time Dad.

There’s something strange in Mum’s voice – something I can’t pick. Her face which was bunched up looks less knotted.

Is that what you’re crying about Lilianna?

I nod and the car park is quiet until a loud car drives past.

Crazy driver!

I sound just like Mum. She looks at me with her serious face on.

You’re crying because we forgot your sandals?

My feet were burning and you were just ignoring me.

She sighs and looks confused, then after a while begins to laugh. I want to be angry with her because it is not funny that my feet hurt, but tiny fairies fly out of her mouth when she laughs. I wish she would be happy more and angry less.

Dad starts to laugh too and we’re all laughing. Mum gives us both a hug.

Family Hug!

I say it and smile. I don’t feel uncomfortable any more. My face tingles from smiling and my feet ache a bit as Mum slides me into the back seat. She does up my seatbelt and we wait in the hot car, with the engine running and the air conditioner on, waiting for Dad to come back.

I think about tits and dicks – wondering what I missed. I’m not sure what they are but they sound like ‘bum’ and I know I get in trouble for giggling and singing songs about bums, so I don’t ask about tits and dicks. I just want everyone to stay happy.

I say thank you as Dad puts my sandals on and he winks at me. I giggle. And Mum lets him kiss her on the cheek.

As we drive home I sing loudly to Snow Patrol and no one tells me to be quiet. Dad has his hand on Mum’s leg and I see fairies peeking out of her smile when she turns to look at him at a red light. I swing my feet back and forth, careful not to kick the seat in front. My favourite sandals, the ones with the white daisies on them, dance in the space Mum and Dad never see.

This story was originally written on February 8th, 2009 as an entry written for Write Anything’s Picture This #10. and at the time was read by two people! Since then it’s been revised and given a new coat of pain. It was rejected for the Miscellaneous Voices first anthology of online work in January this year. Any critical comment is welcome. I hope a few more people get to enjoy it.