You could be writing, right now. I remember spending a strange evening in a hotel room with a somewhat famous poet. She read me Gertrude Stein and made me want to write. I guess people don’t usually take you up to their hotel rooms because they want to make you want to write. She wasn’t inspired to write with me, and I ended up leaving shortly thereafter to drive the long, dark highways of upstate New York to my own apartment with no television in a town with no bookstores.
What makes you want to write? Is it the same thing as what makes you actually write?
Knowing what makes you work–and not the fantasy you have about what makes you work–is very useful for a writer. Supporting the habits you have–and not the habits you wish you had–takes a lot less energy and provides a lot more creative productivity. In other words, spend your time writing, not changing the way you write.
If it helps to fool yourself, you could pick up a pen right now. Really, you are reading this blog, surfing the net, waiting to refresh the status list of your Facebook friends to see who else has posted. But at the same time, let’s say you were holding a pen or opening a blank document on your computer and carelessly, haphazardly throwing down some words, right there on a page or screen. Here are ten more places you might begin. But you can begin anywhere. Any time. You can begin now.
The Fine Art and Grunt Work of Inspiration
Exercises invented or collected by Elizabeth Stark (with thanks to my teachers, in person and in books: Gil Dennis, Natalie Goldberg, John Gardner, Joyce Johnson, Stephanie Moore, Eileen Myles, A.M. Holmes, Gloria Anzaldua, Ken Atchity, Buchi Emecheta, Angie Powers and probably some others on the way . . .)
21. Interview people about their lives. People actually love to talk about themselves. Ask about sensate details, about motivations and desires, about changes and turning points, about extreme emotions and challenges. Learn about the details of a place or profession or time that you don’t know about. Then write fiction and feel free to invent beyond what you’ve been told (so long as you aren’t passing it off as fact).
22. Go to the library. Wander the stacks with your notebook or index cards. Research a subject you know nothing about. Let the research seep into you, then emerge in your writing.
23. Use horoscopes from the newspaper or online to create characters and stories.
24. Create a deck of writing cards: ten brief character sketches, ten locations, and ten objects–one each on index cards. Shuffle each pile of index cards, and then draw two characters, a location and an object. Make both your characters compete for the object in the location.
25. Play, “what if?” Imagine roads not taken, for yourself or for other people you know. Imagine yourself or others to have different characteristics or circumstances. What if you won the lottery? What if your greatest dream came true and it didn’t make you happy? What if your deepest fear manifested? What if you had never . . . met a certain person, moved to a certain place, had a certain opportunity or loss? You can ask these and other “what if?” questions of any number of characters.
26. Take an ordinary object: a dollar bill from your wallet, a pair of socks, an antique desk. Imagine its history, the people who’ve handled or used or made it, their desires and hopes, their lives.
27. Write nonsense. Use real words and sentence structure, but let go of meaning altogether. Or look at a text in a foreign language you don’t understand and “translate” it. What might it mean?
28. Think of two irreconcilable goods or two irreconcilable evils. Now put a character in the situation of having to choose between them.
29. Listen to a song or even a piece of music with no lyrics and write the story you hear there.
30. Make up your own exercises. Writing will teach you to write and will show you what you think.
Tomorrow (Sunday, Dec. 21, 2008) is the end of my early enrollment discount for Building Your Book, an online revision and editing course. Come join this wonderful, warm, smart community of people writing books, and finish your book in 2009!