Tips to jump-start your writing (unless you’re in Arkansas)

image It’s Friday, but this one is different! Why? No, not because I woke up with our dog’s nose somewhere we both regret. What makes this Friday different is that 47 years ago today my life got better without me even knowing it — because my wife was born! To celebrate, I’ve taken the next three days off, in part so I can apologize for the fact I just announced her age to more than 5,000 people.

Yeah, that was dumb.

However, I was smart enough to plan ahead and have a post ready for this week’s Nickel’s Worth On Writing which, in case you’re visiting for the first time, is when I take the wisdom gathered from 15 years as a columnist and share it much like U2’s latest album — no one asked for it but they’re getting it for free anyway.

Unlike U2’s album, my weekly feature has been heralded by Publishers Weekly as “…Writing advice to inspire your best work, assuming you stack hazard cones for a living…”

But enough accolades!

There’s nothing quite like staring at a blank page, knowing that with a few strokes of the keyboard you will transform a landscape devoid of life into a living, breathing thing of your own creation. There’s also nothing quite like finishing that fourth cup of coffee only to find that same blank page staring back at you.

Sure, you may have typed several sentences — or maybe even the same sentence several times — in hopes of gaining some kind of momentum to carry you over that first hump, but the cursor repeatedly stalls out in the same spot, leaving you with the same blank page after riding the “delete” button back to the beginning.

Hey, that’s why it’s called a “cursor.”

I’ll be honest. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the notion of writer’s “block,” which suggests some kind of blockage — such as a cheese wedge or too many butter biscuits — restricting movement through a hypothetical colon of creativity. Although there are some books in print that offer evidence to support at least part of the colon theory, I prefer to think of the writing process as cells in a battery; when they are fully charged, things start easily. But if the alternator belt slips too much or the terminals get corroded, you end up without enough juice to turn the engine. Because we are writers and not mechanics, and because that last sentence exhausted the full extent of my automotive knowledge, I will sum up my analogy with this: When your battery is low, you get a jump, right?

Writing is no different.

That being said, I have been asked by my lawyer to clarify that this does not mean anyone should actually hook jumper cables to their ear lobes or mamilla and ask a friend to crank the engine. For those of you living in Arkansas who have already done this for reasons of your own, you can back me up on this. The rest of you will just have to take my word for it.

Obviously, just as there are plenty of reasons to avoid lending your jumper cables to anyone from Arkansas, there are lots of reasons your creativity may need a jump start once in a while. Whether it be from a lack of sleep or a hangover, to distractions, worries or even injury — possibly involving jumper cables — here are a few ways to get your creative engine cranking. But before we get to that, there is one more automotive reference we need to address:

Fuel.

It doesn’t matter how many times you twist the ignition, the engine won’t start without fuel. The same thing goes for getting your brain to fire on all cylinders. That doesn’t mean you have to set up your laptop next to the carving station at the breakfast buffet. Although it did give me unfettered access to the ham. The problem was that I spent most of the time licking my fingers instead of typing with them. The point is, make sure you eat before you settle in to write. Should it be a balanced meal? Who cares! We’re grown-ups! We can eat a mixing bowl full of Fruity Pebbles between lunch and dinner if we want! Whatever you do, just don’t write on an empty stomach. Especially in the morning. Even if you just have a cup of coffee and three chocolate chip cookies. Which, by the way, is a purely random example, and has no correlation to what I ate before writing this. Particularly if my wife is reading.

So, let’s assume you are fueled up and you’ve settled in to write. And let’s further assume you have almost finished that first cup of coffee and the cursor is still blinking at you on a blank page. And let’s additionally assume the buffet has ended and you have been asked to leave because brunch is now over and it’s time to set up for happy hour. Then try one or more of these suggestions to get your creative engine cranking.

1) Read someone else’s work you admire or dislike. Whether it’s a blogger, columnist or novelist, reading the work of someone who inspires you can serve as a reminder of what good writing can do. And while it’s true that it can backfire by also reminding you of how much your writing stinks compared to theirs, or how being a humor columnist isn’t taken as seriously as a boring political analyst who never says anything remotely funny because he’s too busy cashing his enormous paycheck and talking with influential people… it’s still a really fun way to get those creative juices flowing! In the same way, reading someone whose work you dislike can spark your creativity by inspiring you to write even better and having it acknowledge by others. Even if “others” turns out to be stuffed animals from your children’s room that you have assembled at the kitchen table for that purpose.

2) Google a random image and write dialogue for it. Sometimes the best way to focus in on your writing is to look away for a short period. Think of this exercise as looking through the lens of a camera and purposely blurring the image so you can compare for better focus. One way to do this with your writing is to pick a topic — romance, humor, drama, action — and Google images for it, i.e., “romantic images” or “action images.” Once they come up, give yourself a limit — say three pages of images — to look through and pick one image. Then give yourself 15 minutes to create either dialogue or a brief storyline to go with it. Not only will this get your mind working but, occasionally, can spark an entirely new story idea. Especially if you find an unflattering image of yourself on the Internet you didn’t know existed, such as wearing nothing but a pot holder over your privates while passed out in the pool on an inflatable whale. Once again, this is just a completely random example with no connection to me personally.

3) Pick a song that inspires you and sing it at the top of your lungs. Most of us have a musical device of some kind with our favorite tunes on it. Pick a song that always makes you feel good, go somewhere you can sing freely — such as the bedroom, a hiking trail, Starbucks — and put in your earbuds… Then sing LOUDLY! Music inspires our creativity in a way nothing else does. Feel the music and, if necessary, sing it loudly more than once! Or even while running from the police! I actually listen to AC/DC whenever I write. My habit of singing “T.N.T.” loudly before I write has not only helped spark my creativity, it has also sparked discussion in the newsroom about giving me my own office. Possibly across the street.

These are just a few of the tools you can use to jump-start your creative engine when the battery is running low.

As long as you’re nowhere near Arkansas.

(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.)

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24 thoughts on “Tips to jump-start your writing (unless you’re in Arkansas)

  1. “Whatever you do, just don’t write on an empty stomach.”

    For one thing, everyone knows a full stomach gives you a much larger writing surface. Trust me on this one…I have photographic evidence that no one should EVER have to see.

    And if you do write on an empty stomach, try to write backwards and upside-down, because it will be much easier to read in the mirror later.

    Oh, and make sure you don’t use a permanent marker…if for no other reason than it is harder to register body parts with the Writers’ Guild of America…although I am sure there is an app for that too.

  2. PS While I tease Arkansas (at least it’s not Mississippi), I think it is a beautiful state full of amazing people (can you feel the “but” coming?) (leave that question alone, Ned)

    …but I had to laugh when I saw a job posting for a journalist with a newspaper outside of Little Rock and one of the job requirements was “Must be good speller”

    The only way that could have amused me more would have been if it was written “Must be good spellar”

    Ah, Arkansas…dear, sweet Arkansas…how you do wallow in your stereotypes.

    PS Writers may be the only ones who see my humour in this.

  3. Fueling the engine with wine tends to make it stall, if it even gets going at all. I’m looking forward to getting back into my early morning writing routine now that the lodge has slowed down. Off to buy a box of Fruity Pebbles or All-Bran. We’ll see which one gives me verbal diarrhea!! 😉

  4. Some of my best admirers don’t even exist. I’ll have to make sure Cyndi (My Imaginary Stalker) doesn’t read that last sentence! And thank goodness the cat can’t read but still manages to hit the “like” button! Thanks for the pep talk!

  5. Funnily enough, I actually read your book in Portugal last month. What it was doing there I have no idea, but it got my own juices going again. So, thanks for that, Ned.

  6. I completely agree with putting music on; I find I write a lot better when listening to my playlist regardless that I have played the same Leonard Cohen song all morning. Leonard Cohen easily gets my juices running, thus there is no need for me to go to Arkansas.

  7. First of all…let me tell how relieved I am to not find any comments on here from me prior to this one. I read this yesterday, I thought I commented and then panicked (today) at what I might have said.
    Oh, did I mention that I had my knee scoped and was under the influence of Lortab when I first read this?!?
    Today, I’m off the pain meds and crutches and have been looking to do anything BUT write. So, where did I finally end up (after stalling)? Right back to you for some sound advice. Time to get back into the habit. Especially with NaNoWriMo coming!
    Perhaps a little Back in Black will do the trick!
    (As always, thank you for this timely guidance!)

    • Because I consider you a friend, I actually deleted your comment from yesterday because you shouldn’t be judged on what you did in Arkansas all those years ago. So aside from a few readers who caught it before I did, your secret is safe with us.

      That said, with or without Lortab, you can’t go wrong with “Back in Black.” When I go in for surgery Nov. 12, rest assured I will have AC/DC and pain meds waiting for me;)

  8. Belated Happy Birthday to Mrs. Ned! Love the tips for avoiding writer’s block, especially with the start of National Blog Posting Month a mere four days away. I particularly like #3, though I woke up with the decidedly uninspiring “Sweet Caroline” (Bomp bomp bom!) stuck in my head. I wonder if AC/DC will be enough to dislodge it. I might need a crowbar.

    • Dear Gawd! What a horrible way to wake up! I’d suggest cranking “T.N.T.” on your ear buds to exorcize that musical demon, followed by a dose of “Back In Black.” If Neil Diamond persists, you may want to seek a priest.

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