What triggers you to start writing? For a start, forget guns and their triggers. Think what is that thought, emotion situation or any element of life that triggers you to write. What are those new sensations and experiences, old or fresh memories that represent that moment when the ice clicks and you pick up your pen or start typing?
Of course, differing to that trigger, or starting point, there has to exist a writing drive, that general idea, sense, that you have to commit your thoughts to words saved on paper or somewhere on one of your electronic devices.
Somehow, it seems that memories and the way we interpret them in most cases represent that starting point. In “Change Is Gonna Come”, Sam Cooke wrote and sang that he was “born by the river” and used that thought to come up with one of the best songs about racial inequality. For Otis Redding, that same song triggered not only thought and emotions but also the ability to come with one of the best interpretations of somebody else’s song ever, Sam Cooke’s notes and words became his own.
Interpreting somebody else’s words is yet another trigger, as anything that comes up in your mind has the potential to be turned into an idea and words. The words come up at the moment as I’m watching the patisserie across the street and a horse statuette in its window. From here, it looks like it is a patisserie product itself. As you get closer, you see that it is actually made of ribbed velvet fabric.
Between a white chocolate and ribbed velvet horse, there are at least five stories that could evolve — from the reasons the horse is in that window in the first place, to what it takes to make it to who did so and why. And if that is not the trigger, how about that gun and its trigger and the infinite number of stories that could evolve from those two words.
Back in the late Sixties when the prog rock is still in its infancy and late Keith Emerson who became huge of the power trio Emerson, Lake & Palmer, was still a member of The Nice, he came up with a song “Diary of an Empty Day”, that included the lyrics:
“I want to write words to this music
But my head’s all set to refuse it
I can’t think of words to this music
No reason or rhyme to abuse it
I can’t think what to say
My mind’s a blank today
I could write a book this way
A diary to an empty day
I could write a book
Fourteen lines in fourteen days”.
Well, it might not be just a blank ‘empty’ day, it might be one when you don’t want to write, or just are not supposed to, for some reason or other. So, after all, what should the writers do on such days?
Write anyway! Usually, those days turn into the days of waiting, days of expectations, days of anxiety and such days always bring up writing ideas, ideas that would probably get lost, or modified in some way or other before you record them.
On the other hand, the truly blank days, actually just seem that way. The less you are concentrated on what you are writing at the moment, the more other ideas, for other writings crop up, something that you can turn to when the right time comes around.
Being so tied to the thinking process, writing simply doesn’t stop, it flows along with your thoughts. It is just up to you whether you want or can record them down and turn them into a unified set that can be called a poem, an article, a short story, a novel…
Lists, listicles, whatever you want to call them, seem to be all the rage these days. Whether it is the short attention span or time devoted to the reading of today’s readers or Marshall McLuhan’s prophecy that media is becoming the message, with online discourse dictating how and what we read, makes no difference. The fact remains that lists and listicles dominate, and writers have to cope with that as something that will also dictate their writing.
So, if you want to put it in musical terms, whether you prefer rock and you would favour The Killers and their “My Lists” or country, and Toby Keith’s song of the same name, as a writer you would still have to deal with a fact that listicles will be something you’d be requested to write more often than not.
Now, you might be of the opinion that it turns your writing into consumer-ready shopping lists, that it puts constraints on your imagination and style and curtails any free-form writing. But then, who says that you have to limit yourself to writing lists. It is just a fact that they can support your ‘other’ writing, that it in most cases cannot do.
Still, there remains a question whether there is something else to be gained in writing lists besides the financial backing all writers need. As could be expected, there certainly is, besides the fact that any writing is better than no writing at all.
You can approach writing listicles as if you are writing pieces of ‘flash non-fiction’ grouped together. That would mean that you have to be quite succinct, both in your thinking and writing process, concentrating your thought process to come up with as much essence in as least number of words and sentences as possible.
In many ways, that purifies both your thinking processes and your writing of anything you might do without. Applied to your ‘ordinary’ writing it will most probably make it clearer and easier to read and understand. And that is not only for your readers' sake — it will clearly show you whether your ideas have been translated into writing the way they should be.
When you think of ‘old ways’, the first thing that comes to mind is conservatives in some form or other, going back to something familiar, ‘tried and tested. sticking to what you know. Somehow, it seems that everybody takes that approach at some point or other, no matter of their way of thinking or age.
Even a usually forward-thinking, and now at a forward age singer/songwriter Neil Young made a song and an album called “Old Ways”.
But what would happen if approach old ways in a more literal manner, as a process of retracing your steps with an outlook on how it can bring benefits for the future?
Of course, for writers that process corresponds primarily with the editing of what they have written, looking hard at all those grammar and spelling mistakes, hard to read sentences and inconsistencies in presenting their thoughts and ideas.
But retracing your writing steps should certainly go beyond that. It is not just looking at what was done wrong, or what could be made easier to read and understand, but what can be done in another way, taking in all the circumstances. And those circumstances include how the writer has evolved personally, how his outlook and ideas and changed all in the respect of how his writing can be better and how he as a person has changed, even if the text is only a day old. That process also includes a look at the ideas, books, art or anything else that has inspired us, what is their place in our mindset now.
In that respect, looking at ‘old ways’, retracing our steps can serve as a source of new, fresh, or refreshed ideas and inspire us to take our writing in new directions, whether they refer to something old, conservative or something completely new.
Usually, one of the things that overflow everybody’s electronic mailbox (quite often the standard one too) is piles of polls, questionaries and other requests for your opinion — from politics and climate change to which garbage bags you use. You even get offers to be paid for one or all of these, for seemingly pitiful sums of money.
For most writers, as for anybody else, these are the nuisance they can’t seem to get rid of, more unnerving than a message of rejected manuscript/story/article. Who wants to waste time and effort on telling somebody about which shampoo you use most often when you get better things to do.
But what if you don’t have better things to do? What if you are still waiting for that publisher’s response or all ideas have gone down the drain or are not coming up at all, or when pitiful money is better than no money at all? Turn to polls and questionaries!
No, I’m not kidding. I did not have the time, I did have better things to do, but people that create the polls and questionaries are writers too since they are usually quite good at what they do, they manage to reach and intrigue anybody at any level of intelligence and education. So I decided to try my hand at answering as many of these in 30 days. On top of everything else, from writing to throwing away the garbage (with no polls in it).
Let's get the question of the money out of the way first. No, you can’t get rich out of it, but any money is exactly what it is — money. The second thing to always have in mind is that the people that composed those polls and research questions are marketers, with a specific goal of extracting the targeted information out of the polled audience.
Sometimes they are very open in the direction their questions are going, more often they circumvent and they lead you towards the information they really want from you. In a way, sometimes it is an open market, other times it is like that great fusion jazz band Weather Reports would say “Black Market”.
To do that they use practically the same techniques any writer would use in building their plot, story, even a set of characters. Usually, they try to keep you in ‘suspense’ who their lead character (the company which wants the information from you in the first place) is. To be able to get straight answers from you, to get the reaction they are aiming for from you as a ‘reader’, they really have to be good at it, and quite a few of them are.
As a writer, you can approach the whole process with this question — isn’t information, your thoughts, and opinions, the thing that you want to offer your readers after all? And secondly, isn’t researching other methods of building your plot and characters something that you need?
Not really the conventional writer’s way, but certainly useful. Oh, and after a month, I was able to cover a full supermarket shopping list.
Finding similarities between writer’s research and writer’s exploration wouldn’t be that hard, both can fit into each other like a glove (unless it is the O.J. Simpson trial glove). The key connection there is finding facts, information, and ideas to a theme you have already pre-set. No problem, unless it comes down and doing it. It is often time consuming, can be tedious and boring when you find everything else except what you nee, but is immensely rewarding when you reach upon the exact material that you need.
Still, are there any differences? No matter how every writer is conscious of the importance research has for what they do, exploring is in my mind a broader concept that is contained in the term itself — you can go in search of something when you know exactly or close enough what you are looking for, or you can just throw yourself into unknown — unknown set of information, facts ideas…
Sure, exploration can often be as time-consuming or tedious as ‘focused’ research but it is the unknown that can surprise you, bring about a new writing idea or make you stumble upon a fact that you weren’t able to find when you were looking for it. But writer’s, or any artist exploration can be even more rewarding, put you in a place exactly where you need to be and give you exactly the angle for your writing that you might have not been aware you need.
I’ve no idea how the leader of South Carolina band The Explorers Club came to the idea how to call his band, but he and his band members started out by exploring the sound of California’s The Beach Boys. That gave them a chance to make a brilliant summer harmony album “Freedom Wind” (2008). But that didn’t stop them to further expand their exploration of ‘California sound’ their follow-up “Grand Hotel” (2012) looking and sounding like a meeting with Herb Albert & Tijuana Brass and their “Whipped Cream & Other Delights” (1965). Maybe soon their club will explore something else.
As a writer, there should always be a time and place for exploration. Even when you are doing focused research, you may stumble on something new and unexpected, something that can be that writing spark. Don’t abandon it or overlook it, the results will probably be better than you’ve expected.
Merriam-Webster, our dictionary fave says that “meditation is a practice where an individual uses a technique, such as focusing their mind on a particular object, thought or activity, to achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm state”. If you go into more detail, you can find almost infinite concepts of meditation, depending on culture, religion, even social circumstances…
Concentrating on your work, and that definitely includes writing can be a double-edged sword. The idea is to clear your mind, and besides all the health benefits meditation brings, to tie all the loose strands that will make a certain piece of your writing exactly what you want it to be. Exactly as it should be. But concentrating too much on it can become confusing and can lead you into a thinking stalemate.
Meditating, concentrating on a certain piece from another art form, might lead a writer to see his work through the eyes of another artist, another thinking person and help him find his way through the maze of his personal thoughts.
Music seems to be one of the favourite art forms that are advised and used for meditation. There’s even a separate branch labeled meditation music, usually instrumental, of a calm nature that is intended to clear your mind and focus your thoughts. Sure, if it works for you. It doesn’t have to. As writing is such a personal, individual process, so is the music that can clear your thoughts and inspire a writer to tie all those loose threads or steer him in a right direction.
Learning recently of the death of Marty Balin, one of the founders of Jefferson Airplane, a great songwriter, singer, musician, led me to listen again to “Coming Back To Me,” one of his masterpieces from the Surrealistic Pillow album. The moment the quiet passion of Balin’s voice came in, contours of an adulthood story set in, within an hour and repeated listening to the song, the story was there.
Now, I’m not sure if the whole process of ‘pure’ meditation was involved, but the trigger, focusing on a piece of ‘another art’ was there, and so was the writing.
Ok, most writers love their home atmosphere, the consistency of their writing space and their daily routine. Somehow, it seems to secure them the ability to think, come up with ideas, write… But then, what happens when you do your writing on the move, or move to do your writing?
Travel writing is, and it seems was always very popular, and in many cases is quite effective for its readers. What ‘always stay home’ writers seem to miss are the reasons why that is the case. On one hand, the readers itch not only for new experiences they get from travelogues but also a new perspective or set of perspectives. On everything. They expect that not only from themselves but from the writers too.
Joni Mitchell, one of the best singer/songwriters in modern music wrote (and sang) in “All I Want”, one of her most impressive songs:
“I am on a lonely road and I am traveling
Traveling, traveling, traveling
Looking for something, what can it be
Oh, I hate you some, I hate you some, I love you some
Oh, I love you when I forget about me
All I really really want our love to do
Is to bring out the best in me and in you too…”
And that is exactly what travel writing does. It brings out the best in writers and readers because it makes them both look at everything from a different perspective. It doesn’t matter whether it is a never-ending journey or stepping away from your comfort zone for a day or two. The moment you step away into unknown or into a place you moved away from a while ago, you sense the differences, you pair the similarities and your perspective shifts. So does your writing.
It can only become better. New and unknown people and experiences bring along new ideas. Re-visiting places you have known give you not only the chance to compare the changes in them and the people that remained, but also give you a chance to clear your focus, like cleaning your glasses from all the muck you didn’t even notice was there. It revitalizes you and your writing, or as to quote the title of a song by Arthur Alexander a brilliant Sixties soul singer — “You Better Move On”.
Running out of writing ideas is probably one of the scariest things any writer can experience. The more the feeling that there’s nothing more to write about creeps in, the scarier it gets and even a scent of an idea seems to rapidly evaporate.
You start feeling that you need a magic wand that you tap on your computer screen, notepad or whatever that will suddenly bring you that life-saving idea, a magic carpet that will transport you from the desert to an idea plentiful oasis.
But if you can imagine that, you are already on an idea recovery track. But then, there’s always the possibility to run back and grab your security blanket, or you could borrow Linus’ one if he can be without it for a few seconds.
Usually, that is all it takes. A few seconds with your (writing) security blanket. Whether it is a person or persons, present or away, or a dear object, a blanket for that matter, it makes no difference, the inspiration is back and the ideas start to flow again!
Now, no matter how disconnected or obscure the initial idea(s) might seem, they tend to lead you on a path of a renewed creativity that produces real results.
Commenting on the reissue of Furr, Blitzen Trapper’s most coherent album so far, the band leader Eric Earley explained that in the preparation of the album he simply recorded seemingly unconnected images that even he initially didn’t know what they meant. In the end, he and the band came with a series of musical vignettes portraying Old Portland, where the band is from; vignettes that actually make sense even to listeners that may only have a vague idea where Portland is located.
Whether he was aware of it or not, Earley’s hometown served as that safety blanket that produced writing ideas. So if that idea-less time starts to creep in, maybe it is time to see where your loved ones are or start digging through the cupboards to see where all your childhood stuff is hiding…
Walter Kent the songwriter is probably best remembered for the holiday classic “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and the Forties hit “The White Cliffs of Dover”. But there’s a song he wrote that is really a jazz classic — “Love Is Like A Cigarette”. Quite a few artists covered it, including Duke Ellington and in more recent times, there’s a memorable version by Caroline Henderson.
Personally, the version that hits the mark was the one from the late Eighties by the jazz composer/producer/arranger Kip Hanrahan, where, in a mostly instrumental version, the sultry female vocals suddenly appear and in the same manner disappear, as they weren’t there:
“Love’s like a cigarette
You know you had my heart aglow
Between your fingertips
And just like a cigarette
I never knew the thrill of life
Until you touched my lips
Then just like a cigarette
Love seems to fade away
And leave behind ashes of regret
And with a flick of your fingertips
It was easy for you to forget
Oh, love is like a cigarette. ”
As with love, it is the ideas, particularly writing ideas that suddenly appear and as quickly disappear, or fade away. It doesn’t matter; they are gone. If we don’t record them down. In any way we can — sitting down staring at whatever screen we have in front of us, recording them on the telephone answering machine as we pass by it, on a napkin in a cafe, or in any manner possible, just making sure it isn’t lost forever.
Ok, so it doesn’t really have to be lost completely if we don’t record it immediately. The vestiges of our thoughts usually remain. But a question arises — is it the original idea we had in the first place? Sure, we can develop it from what we wrote (or record) down, but there will always remain that nagging feeling that something is missing from ‘the original’ one.
It is usually the case that the original idea is the best one we had. We can always develop it in any direction or direction the idea takes us from there, but like in Kent’s song ideas, like love “seem to fade away” and if not recorded will “leave the ashes of regret” behind.
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