Ah, the mystical topic of writing ideas. Where do they come from?
Are they really messages from the universe, ones that we pass through us like radio waves through receivers? Are they the products of our muse, spiritual beings who bestow us with their gifts at their whim and fancy? Or do we simply think our ideas into reality?
Nobody knows, really.
You have people like Stephen Pressfield who claim that it’s simply a product of showing up, while the likes of Neil Gaiman says that he just makes them up in his head.
And all that’s fine and dandy, but that doesn’t change the fact that your weekly blog post is due tomorrow, and you still have no idea what to write about.
Well, fret not, young grasshopper, because we’re going to explore this, um, idea, right now!
Figuring out the what of writing ideas
First of all, what are ideas?
To be honest, I don’t know. But I do know that you know what the following feels like: There you are, on your daily walk, and you notice someone trying to drag their dog across the road.
Then a thought hits you: What if dogs walked humans instead? Certainly, some pet owners need the exercise more than their furry friends? Then you go home and churn out a 2,000-word article titled ’10 (Not So) Secret Benefits To Owning A Dog’.
“I had an idea for a science-fiction novel called Avalon. I started work on it and it was going pretty good, when suddenly it just came to me, this scene, from what would ultimately be the first chapter of A Game of Thrones.”George RR Martin
Okay so maybe that was a terrible example. But you get the point—ideas aren’t easily quantifiable, and they sure as hell aren’t reliably replicable.
In fact, in the few minutes it took you to read up to this point, you’d probably generated a dozen ideas that you just didn’t care to sieve through. And that’s our first order of idea generation—knowing when they come a-knocking.
How I get my writing ideas
Sad to say, I don’t have a checklist that guarantees extra ideas. One, because we’re all different, and two, because I ain’t a self-help guru.
But you can learn to increase your chances of realising your thoughts, to be more attuned to the inner workings of your mind, and through that, catch the ideas as they come.
Me, personally, I have a few key moments in my day where the ideas flow more freely, so perhaps keeping an eye out during these moments would benefit you as well.
“I’d love to tell you that I had some big, brainy epiphany, but here’s the unglamorous truth: I had a boring on-campus desk job during college, and I made up aliens to pass the time.”Becky Chambers
1. During or after exercise
This one’s pretty consistent. I get my best ideas when I’m out on my runs, annoyingly enough when I can’t record them down. There’s just something about physical exertion that sends me deeper into the self.
It’s no wonder, then, that in his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami stated how “being active every day makes it easier to hear that inner voice.”
Maybe it’s the endorphins, because the accompanying optimism does make lame ideas seem more appealing. So listen to your thoughts during and after your workouts and see what happens.
Cliche, but true. There’s just something about routine tasks that encourages my mind to wander. I could be stuck at a certain chapter in my novel, and somewhere between shampooing my hair and washing my tummy will the solution emerge.
Again, it irks me to no end that this is also when I can’t record down my ideas, so I resort to repeating the thoughts over and over, only to forget them later.
You know that feeling when you just wake up, fresh out of a dream? You know how you can be lucid, yet still see images swirling behind your eyelids? I sometimes get that during meditation, and they do allow me to see things that I wouldn’t otherwise have.
And the weirdest part is that most of the ideas here tend to want to stay within this realm. It’s just like dreaming. You think you’ll remember everything, but the only thing that remains upon waking is a vague emotion or idea.
4. Morning pages
I’ve always sworn by morning pages, and not in a woo-woo way either. Besides being a good place to vent, morning pages also help you work out the thoughts in your head, like a massage therapist kneading away the knots in your muscles.
For instance, just yesterday I was questioning commitment to writing, when my subconscious decided to have a conversation with me. Here’s what it looked like:
I’ve been slacking with my writing recently. Why do I keep avoiding it? Maybe it’s because you’re looking at it as if it’s a chore to be completed. Why not think of it as a session to enjoy, just like how you treat your other hobbies? You don’t ‘struggle’ through video games, do you?
And thus the idea for this post was born.
5. Consuming others’ works
Just because you’re on the hunt for writing ideas doesn’t mean you need to limit yourself to reading. Other mediums can teach you a lot too.
I was watching Better Call Saul last week, and I realised how the characters would attempt a solution before being forced to do so. So somebody might purchase a gun, but decide against using it, until a life-or-death situation forces them to go ahead with their original intentions.
That’s so much better than simply purchasing a gun and using it to solve a problem.
Here’s another example, but with reading. After reading House Of Suns, I now have a totally different perspective on immortality and space travel, all fodder that I can use in my future works.
It also goes without saying that YouTube is a great source for writing ideas. I’ve watched everyone from Buddhist monks to ex-convicts and their different viewpoints do help me approach stories from different angles.
6. Actually working on the story
It’s weird how I can start a blog post with one outline, then end up with a totally different product once I’m done writing. It’s almost as if the act of writing itself helps me generate different ideas as I go.
Just like playing a sport, the decisions you make based on how the play is unfolding might diverge from your original plans, and sometimes it’s all about making said adjustments.
And that should be a comfort to you. Just know that the blank page can also be your source for writing ideas. You just need to be brave enough to wade through the wasteland of blinking cursors and crappy first words.
Sites like Quora, Reddit, and even other content creators’ comments section are a great place to learn what people are talking about in your niche. Sometimes you’ll even come across questions that you’ll have the answers to—that’s idea city right there.
Of course, you’ll have to be knowledgable enough to know where your audience hangs out. At the very least, you should know things like which subreddits to visit.
This works best for when you want to pad up your article, and you have no idea what else to include. Simply browse a forum, check out their pain points, and voila.
“Inspiration comes from all over. Often things I see. The mist in Mistborn came from driving through a foggy night. Sazed came from a Buddhist monk I met in Korea. Sarene came from a friend, Annie, who complained that she was too tall and too smart for men to want to date.”Brandon Sanderson
How you can practise the art of idea-making
Okay so maybe my methods could be too personal. Maybe you want to train your own mind to come up with more ideas. Well I’ve got you covered. Here are some drills you could use to get started with your enhanced ideation.
1. Get used to being bored
The fact that we’re losing our ability to feel bored is a telling sign of our future, but since the internet is a fairly new phenomenon, there’s very little I can tell you about this. But authors like Neil Gaiman have used the ‘write or do nothing’ method pretty effectively, which is why I’d suggest you to do the same and start making friends with boredom.
So the next time you feel the impulse to reach for your phone, stop and consider why. Do you have important work to do? Or are you just curious about the latest Instagram updates since you’d last checked—seventeen minutes ago?
I myself have taken too moodling, which is simply sitting down with pen and paper and doing absolutely nothing. If I want to write, I do. If not, I don’t. But I just sit there. Doing nothing. For half an hour. At least.
Try it. The results may surprise you.
2. Just generate ideas
I’ve mentioned James Altucher’s technique of generating ideas before and I’ll mention it again. He recommends that you try and generate ten ideas a day. What ideas? It’s up to you. Ten ideas for articles. Ten ways to cook your favourite omelette. Ten outfits you can match with your new pair of shoes.
The idea (heh) here is to just do it. To not be bound by perfectionism, or even the need for the ideas to be executable. After all, you get better at free throws by actually practising free throws, right?
3. Practise mindfulness
The thing about mindfulness is that it can exist in many forms. Running is a form of mindfulness for me, because at no other time does my mind focus all its efforts into realising one sole goal—to not die (I’m a drama queen I know).
You could pick up sketching. Or maintain a commonplace book. Or people-watch. Anything that takes you away from the mindless killing of time. The more you practise, the better you’ll get at being present, which also means observing your thoughts.
And who knows which one of those thoughts could be your next big idea?
“Ideas seem to come by themselves, unbidden. They seem to come in off-moments. They appear when the brain is turned off. For me that’s when I’m half asleep, pre-dawn or tossing in the middle of the night; when I’m in the shower or shaving, or driving on the freeway.”Steven Pressfield
Forget productivity when it comes to ideas
If you dive deep enough down the idea-generating rabbit hole, you’ll start to notice a pattern, and that’s the relationship between idleness and creativity.
For instance, hypnagogia—the state between wakefulness and sleep—is known to have played a role in the creative pursuits of the greats such as Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison.
In these states, symptoms like the aforementioned swirling images behind your eyelids are a common occurrence, and people actually traverse the gap between nap times and wakefulness to enter this state.
My personal way of achieving this is through meditation.
“You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”Neil Gaiman
What does this mean for you?
Well, you could take it as a reminder to do nothing so you can do something. To rest in order to work. To not feel guilty when you’re not aboard the productivity train 24/7.
Because while there’s a certain pride that comes from charging full steam throughout your day, you should also know that different modes of functioning exists. And when it comes to creativity, you’d do well to give yourself some space.
You still have to write
Getting better at generating writing ideas may sound like an awesome skill, but it’s only one part of the equation. The other—and perhaps more important—part is actually doing the work.
Getting that swanky new idea doesn’t mean you can turn off your creative mind and call it a day. And I know you didn’t read this entire post just for me to reach the following observation, but there’s really no avoiding this: At the end of the day, what’s most important is that you just write.
So take what you want from this post, and discard what doesn’t help. But remember, your ideas aren’t going to write themselves.
“In all seriousness, people think that it’s the ideas that are important. Well, everyone has ideas, all the time. I write mine down and remember them, but at some point you have to apply the bum to the seat and knock out about sixty-five thousand words — that’s how long a novel is.”Terry Pratchett
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