Michelle at Lipstick and Laundry and Eli at Coach Daddy teamed up this morning for an insightful and entertaining post offering advice on Getting Past Writing Obstacles Like a Ninja. I can tell you their suggestions are terrific (although I did pull a groin muscle doing a ninja roll.) So do some stretches and then go read their post. In the meantime, think of this excerpt from my upcoming book Ned’s Nickel’s Worth on Writing: Advice From 16 Years as a Shucking Columnist as a special accompaniment piece that neither Michelle or Eli actually asked for. And not just because this image alone could be a mental obstacle impossible to overcome…
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:
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. This has been an excerpt from his upcoming book, Ned’s Nickel’s Worth On Writing: Pearls of Writing Wisdom From 16 Years as a Shucking Columnist. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.