Robert Frost defined creativity as “looking at something old in a new way.” Often our own creative batteries need recharging in order to develop new solutions to old writing problems: finding time and ideas, getting started, and dealing with distractions. The following tips will get your creative gears in motion.
Finding the Write Time
Life circumstances can limit both your writing time and your creativity. How often have you said, “I’d get so much writing done if I just had an extra hour in my day”?
To find that extra hour — or even just 15 minutes — to nurture your creativity, try examining how you’re spending the time you have. On a sheet of paper, list all your waking hours. For each hour record your activities — and be specific. For a week, make a note of everything — taking a walk, reading, preparing dinner and commuting to work.
At the end of the week, look back on the daily logs and circle each day’s leisure time. Then go through the daily logs again and draw a fine under those leisure times when you’re absolutely free of distractions and interruptions — these are potential writing times. You’ll probably notice that you’ve made time for watching television, talking on the phone, going out to dinner. If you can do it for those activities, then it’s not unrealistic to find and devote 15-60 minutes a day to writing.
Look first at the hours from about 7 to 11 p.m. Is there a television program you watch faithfully each week? The news? A sitcom? Do you watch a show before or after that one? Could that time be used for writing?
Next, look for uninterrupted chunks of time throughout your day. Do you take a bus or train to work? If your round-trip travel time is 45 minutes, can you use 30 of those minutes as writing time?
Dan, a student in one of my classes, used his commute to think through and write a story. Every day on the bus, Dan focused on his story and concentrated on his character. He didn’t waste 10 or 15 minutes trying to out what to write about; he simply took notes on the thoughts he had about his story.
After a few months, the plot line began falling into place. Dan’s character became more and more believable. In fact, most of the story was written using those 20-minute sessions on the bus.
Marjorie Holmes is the author of numerous books and articles, as well as the mother of four children. How did she manage to do both? “There were thousands of times when I thought I would go mad, mad, mad, with interruptions and frustrations,” Holmes said. “Yet no matter what, I managed to turn out a little something almost every day. Even a scrap of an idea or an observation.”
Curiouser and Curiouser
“Curiosity is one of the most permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect,” said Samuel Johnson. Writers who lack it — or stifle it — are at a disadvantage.
One powerful idea generator that activates curiosity is the daily newspaper. It pulls you into a whirlwind of emotions and events. Crime, death, advice and laughter are discussed, documented and delivered to your doorstep. Reading the paper can be a routine exercise or a treasure hunt for ideas.
Become a creative reader. Tackle those pages with a pen in your hand and this question in your mind: How can I use this in my writing.? Jot notes in the margin. Put check marks next to articles to clip for future use.
As you read about the teenager who unexpectedly inherited $3 million from an eccentric neighbor he’d befriended, your active mind should ask questions: How will this change his life? How would the average person spend that much money? What would I do with it? You can explore the answers to these questions and others in your own articles, stories and poems.
Advice columns such as Dear Abby suggest a host of potential topics. Many even provide a story fine. What could you develop from these questions: How do I deal with a child who is on drugs? A jealous spouse? A workaholic husband?
Interviews on TV talk shows range from the informative to the bizarre and can stimulate your creativity. A show that reunites high school sweethearts after 30 years might prompt you to consider whether you’d marry your high school sweetheart today.
Of course, your daily newspaper and favorite talk shows are only two places to apply this technique. Once you develop your curiosity, you’ll question everything around you and imagine all the possibilities.
Sleep on it
A stimulated imagination works nonstop. Even when you’re not awake, you’re thinking and creating and dreaming. Ideas for stories and ways to develop them can be revealed in dreams. Plots can be acted out by your characters on your mind’s movie screen. Why not tap into this source?
Even people who say they don’t dream really do; they just don’t remember. We spend 20% of our sleeping hours dreaming. Adults may dream for up to 90 minutes during an eight-hour period. This can be a very creative and productive time, especially if other duties limit your writing time.
Authors, scientists and artists throughout history have looked to dreams for ideas and insights. Dante, Goethe, Milton, Blake and Tolstoy were influenced by their dreams. J. B. Priestly dreamed his three essays “The Berkshire Beast,” “The Strange Outfitter” and “The Dream” in detail.
Researchers agree that whatever thoughts you have right before sleep greatly influence the content of your dreams. After thinking for several nights about a poem that could convey her feelings about depression, Anne, a beginning writer, had a dream: “I was alone in a large Victorian house. A foot of snow had fallen during the day — the wind drifted it against the door. As I looked out the window, I felt an overwhelming sense of isolation and depression. The blizzard became the metaphor for depression in my poem.”
With practice, you can deliberately induce dreams of artistic creations or dreams that solve problems. “Your dreams can become your own source of inspiration,” says Dr. Patricia Garfield, author and dream researcher. (See the sidebar on page 31 for advice on how to influence your dreams.)
Warming Up Your Writing Muscles
Perhaps your creative roadblock isn’t in getting an idea, but in how to get it on paper.
These five exercises will help you break the ice at the start of a writing session. I recommend you spend a minimum of 15 minutes warning up for every hour you intend to write.
* Pick a word that defines your mood at the time you’re writing (such as sad) happy, romantic). Write several paragraphs about how you feel and why. This exercise can act as a catharsis to clear away emotional blocks that inhibit your creativity.
* Read a favorite poem or quotation and write your reaction to it. A literary shot in the arm or an insightful comment can stimulate an idea. It can cause you to recall an experience, a person or an emotion you could write about.
* If you’re planning to write a story during your regular writing session, use journalism’s five Ws to help you figure out what to say: Who is the story about? What is the plot? Where does it take place? When does the action happen? Why are you writing it? Write a rough outline based the five Ws.
* As you look at your high school year-book picture (or one taken when you were a teenager), ask yourself these questions: How have your priorities changed since then? What career did you want to pursue in high school? Did you do it? What three important life lessons have you learned since you graduated?
* Open your journal. Keeping a journal or diary or writing letters may be especially helpful if you have trouble developing an idea. A journal serves many purposes. It can be a trusted friend to confide in or a sounding board for solving problems.
“Creative people in many fields have traditionally kept journals because the form encourages the creative process,” wrote Tristine Rainer in her book The New Diary. “The journal provides a place to deposit the first flash of creative imagination or experience.”
Cecilia, a former student, writes articles about teenagers and their problems. Before beginning a piece, she writes letters to her niece and nephew who are in high school. Cecilia never mails these letters, but they help her picture her readers and their needs. They let her express her ideas in a way that would interest teens.
“No writing is a waste of time,” author Brenda Ueland assures us. “With every sentence you write, you have learned something. It has stretched your understanding.”