Where To Find Ideas When Your Brain Has Dried Up

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Come on, the ideas are just waiting. Photo by Stephanie Snow

The Coffee Shop: Sitting amongst the chatter of the normies might be just what you need to unstick your brain and get the ideas flowing. If not, try a triple Red-Eye. That’ll do it.

The Street: Go out for a walk and let the gentle caress of the breeze coax stories from your mind. Or at least imagine a reason why your 65-year-old neighbour is cleaning his car wearing nothing but short shorts and a sweatband.

The Shower: Something about showering brings the creativity out. Maybe it’s the warmth. Maybe it’s your coconut-and-freesia bodywash. Maybe it’s the cold draft on your butt when your cat moves the curtain to look in at you because cats are assholes with no sense of privacy. Whatever it is, get those ideas before they wash down the drain.

The Smoker’s Section: This was once the entirety of the world, but now people object to being passively poisoned for some reason. As a former smoker who’s one really bad day from falling off the wagon, I can attest to the creativity that comes to you when you’re standing outside in the freezing cold with a delicious stick of nicotine and cancer. Something about staring at a wall while chemicals swirl through your brain.

The Bar: On the up side, alcohol lowers inhibitions, thus increasing your openness to new ideas. On the down side, sometimes those new ideas include the mistaken conviction that you can dance. You can’t. That margarita lied to you.

The Garden: I understand that some people find gardening relaxing? I don’t know, man, plant grooming is just not my thing. But if it’s yours, meh, you do you. I do, however, find it nice to sit outside and think. Until the wasps come.

The Grocery Store: Maybe it’s just that I find being in the presence of large amounts of carbs relaxing, but I do come up with story ideas while food shopping. And sometimes the ideas come to you, like that time late at night when I saw a guy in full clown regalia pushing his cart down the same aisle as me.

The Gym: Aside from keeping an eye on your form and counting your reps, lifting weights doesn’t offer much mental stimulation. And unless you find sweat-covered magazines and shitty talk shows entertaining, there is nothing else to do when you’re on the cardio machines except think. Put that time to good use. More good use, I mean. Exercise is already good. You know what I mean.

Any Place That’s Open All Night: Bus stations. All-night diners. Really sketchy bars where they close the windows and draw the curtains after Official Closing Time. These places are repositories of weird, and weird is good for creativity. Just make sure to bring your own weirdness A-game.

Where do you look for ideas when the old brain well has dried up?

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Spring Comes: Getting Through The Hard Days

Fuck, if these things got through the snow, I guess I have to. Smug purple bastards.

The end of February is the worst. The cold makes me grumpy and tired, I’m entirely over any sense of the beauty of a fresh snowfall, and everything seems to take so much effort that I might as well give up and stay under a blanket on the couch while binge-reading all the Harry Potter novels again.

The sight of a shovel can reduce a grown man to tears at this point.

But I get up, and I haul my carcass to the desk, and write. And then I haul it outside to shovel. And haul it further to go to yoga and the gym and to see people. Because, despite what popular depictions would tell us, locking yourself in your room with the Muse* is not the best way to prove yourself a writer.

No, as always, the best and only way to be a writer is to fucking write. Judges judge, loggers log, carpenters….carpent**. Writers write.

Even when The Half-Blood Prince and a stack of marshmallow cookies is calling their name.

The thing to remember is that these shitty periods, the ones that crop up for me at this time of year and at least one other (November), the ones that never seem to end? They fucking end. Always. And once they’re over, you’ll never think of them again. Like high school. Seems so important at the time, but once you’re out, you find yourself wondering what all the damn fuss was about.

Anyway, this is less of a pep talk and more of a reminder. Whatever thing, be it the weather or your mood or your tiredness, is keeping you from doing what you love…it will pass. In the meantime, keep doing what you love anyway, because fuck those things. Seriously, you’re going to let a bunch of weather determine if you’ll write? I can see it interfering with gardening, but even then, read a seed catalogue and dream of spring.

Some times are hard. Some days are hard. But there’s never been a day when I regretted shovelling out the car and going to the gym. There’s never been words I regretted putting down because they were hard.

Writers write. Now get to it. And remember: spring comes.

*Ie, a bottle of gin.

**Shut up.

Imaginary Enemies: Your Periodic* Reminder That Writer’s Block Isn’t Real

Writer’s block was in this picture, but Godzilla ate it.

We all have those days when the words just aren’t there. We don’t know where they went—Atlantic City? Barcelona? Rigel-7?—but they are goddamn well not here when we need them. We stare at that blank page and wait for something, anything, to cross your brain to write. Nothing does.

We tend to call this bullshitty empty brain feeling Writer’s Block, like that explains it. Like writers as a group have some kind of monopoly on this. Giving it a name makes it feel legitimate, somehow. It’s not my fault, I have writer’s block. For reals. I have a prescription and everything. It’s called whiskey.

If you seriously have a problem where you can’t physically think of new stuff, then you might want to make an appointment with a neurologist, because something’s crossed upstairs. But if, instead, you use writer’s block to refer to the lack of motivation and ball-busting that you need to carve words into a semi-legible order, then that’s a unicorn of an entirely different colour.

Because writer’s block isn’t real.

Fear, on the other hand, is.

And that’s what writer’s block really is. It’s not a lack of creativity, because most of us have no trouble finding the creativity to craft the perfect tweet or Instagram filter while we’re not writing. It’s just ordinary, garden-variety fear. Fear of sucking. Fear of failure. Fear of being found out for the fakes and posers that we are.** Fear that this story that we’ve put so much of ourselves into isn’t any good.

So we procrastinate, and waste time, and sigh mournfully about our epic case of writer’s block. Because that’s easier than actually doing something about it.

The time for this bullshit is over. Be honest: admit that you’re afraid. I am. Every day. Of screwing this up. Of never being good enough. But the only way past is through, so after I’ve admitted to these sad, soggy little fears, I ignore them. And get on with it. Sometimes the words I write on those days suck, but most of the time they’re…normal. It gets hard to distinguish, upon another reading, where I was feeling great and where I was feeling shitty. Because it doesn’t matter. Not really.

Fear only has the power you give it. So stop giving it everything. Stop thinking of it as a condition, a syndrome, a block. Admit what it really is, and recognize it for the self-involved bullshit that it is.

And then get yourself another cup of coffee, and get on with your day. Because those words aren’t going to write themselves.

*I was going to go with annual, but I couldn’t remember how long it’s been. I know I’ve written on this before, but my archives are Having A Moment and I can’t be arsed to figure out exactly when. So, periodic. Which is a fun word. Much better than annual. Anyway.

**I’m pretty sure that everyone feels like this sometimes. One of my teachers once said that she felt like a fraud when teaching, and that for the first ten years she thought someone would figure it out. No one ever did.

Dawn Of The First Day: 4 Questions For Getting Ready To Write

Tick tock. Are you ready?

Saturday is the first of November. Halloween Boxing Day*. And while you’re prying yourself from the queasy grip of a sugar-induced coma, I’ll be up and writing.

Because Saturday is also the official start of NaNoWriMo.

You might not be starting a new book on Saturday—or you might be doing it a little differently—but this checklist is applicable to anyone who is starting a big ass project. So whether you’re doing NaNoWriMo, or just charting the frantic mental decline of those of us who are while waiting for a better time, check this list and make sure you’re ready.

1. Do you know what you’re writing? If you don’t, you’re in for a rough ride, bucko. Not saying it can’t be done—there are anecdotes of people doing so all over the place—but it will be like unto going down a slide made of gravel in steel-wool underpants. Maybe you’re into that sort of thing. I’m not judging.

2. Have you set aside time to write? Maybe you blocked off a section of your day, or picked a day a week which is for writing. Maybe you’re going to fit it in where you can, which I understand is the preferred** method for those with children. The important thing is to make a commitment. What that commitment looks like is up to you.

3. Do you have a borderline unhealthy addiction to something that gives you energy? I hear this is a great use for leftover Halloween candy. I might have to resort to this since I’m off coffee for a few months. It’s anyone’s guess whether or not I remember how to write without it.

4. Do you love it? The writing, I mean. Because there are going to be hard times. There are going to be times when it feels like you’re trying to knock down a brick wall with your fucking face. At times like that, you need something to keep you going. And what will do that, what will keep you standing when you should have fallen long ago, is love: love for the story, for the idea, for what you’re doing even when it sucks. Love will get you through it when coffee and bite-size Mars bars fail.

So, are you ready?

*For those unfamiliar, Boxing Day is the day after Christmas, when you either go shopping to spend whatever money you got for Christmas or sleep off your food hangover from the previous day.

**Read: only.

Inertia and Nipple Clamps: Getting Started On A Difficult Day

+2 Laptop of Punching

+2 Laptop of Punching

Getting those first words of the day down on the page can be the worst. Thing. Ever. Writing my second thesis, it was a challenge to get going every single day.* To stop staring at the blank white page and the damn blinking cursor that mocked me. You’ve been looking at me for an hour, it says. Nothing done yet. I’m just gonna blink here, ticking away the seconds of your life.

Eventually, though, I figured out a few ways to get past that initial block. Some of them involved drinking. Another was mainly about yelling at the cursor that I was in control, damn it, I will write the shit out of you, who’s winning now, YOU LITTLE BLINKING ASSHOLE.

Thesis time was intense.

Many of the lessons I learned there cross over to fiction writing, though. And the experience of writing a very big thing with a very definite deadline was instructive. You have to get it done. There is no time to sit around watching YouTube and jerking off. Do that on your own time. This is writing time, god damn it. So here’s how to get started:

1) Brush up on your physics. Understand what’s really happening here by applying the principle of inertia: a body at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.**

In other words, it’s harder to get started than to keep going. And that you need to push to start. What that push is depends on you, but keep in mind that coffee/cigarettes/monkey adrenal glands will only take you so far. Look for your push in the same place you look for an alien pupal sac: within.

2) Kill the editor, stuff the body in a cigar box and bury it at the cross roads. You never know, it might sprout into a Criticism Tree. Which is like a Giving Tree, but all it grows are snarky one-star reviews.

You can’t get started if you’re already worried that you’re doing it wrong. So slip a knife quietly between the internal editor’s ribs and write something. It might suck. It might be great. But, whatever it is, it’ll get you started.

Oh, and don’t worry about the editor. That bitch comes back more than an indecisive vampire.

3) Break out the tequila and nipple clamps, it’s fun time. You can’t get started if you’re dreading it. Well, you can, but you’ll waste quintuple the time on Twitter and Buzzfeed first.

Find the fun in what you’re doing. Getting the blog post started today was hard, so I decided to look forward to the ridiculous figurative language I use to write here. Tequila! Alien parasites! Crossroads murder! Yelling at cursors!

It’s all fun and games until you punch through your monitor.

4) Write a blog post. Well, that was easy.

*The first one, oddly, went much easier.

**Scientists: yes, I’m aware this is a colloquial approximation. I’m trying to make a point, not write an essay on Newtonian physics.

Monday Challenge: Man’s Best Friend

In retrospect, the Millers regretted letting Mittens get his firearms licence.

I learned yesterday that Jezebel, my friend’s obese, cantankerous, generally demonic cat, no longer waddles the planet. She was occasionally difficult and often gave the stink eye for absolutely no reason, but she could also be very cute. Usually when she wanted something.

She died as she lived, though: I’m told she bit the veterinarian who put her down.*

Jezebel might have been a demon of the ancient world** but she was also someone’s beloved pet. As someone who has owned some kind of furry quadruped since the age of three, I find it hard to imagine life without pets. Even the ones that are jerks. From the family dog that used to kick me out of my own bed to the cat that dragged an entire chicken breast out of the frying pan and ate it under the couch, they’ve given my life some interesting stories.

So maybe it’s time to give my stories some interesting pets.

Consider, if the plot allows, giving one of your characters a pet. From a story point of view, they serve so many purposes. They humanize villains, aid heroes in need, allow someone to monologue without talking to themselves too much…

And, depending on your story, they may be more than just something to cuddle with while your character watches reruns of Parks and Rec. They may be intelligent. They might be a helper pet for someone with a disability. They might be equipped with reinforced titanium jaws to guard against intruders.

Monday Challenge: write about a character and their pet. Pet dog, pet horse, pet acid-spitting wyvern. Or, if you have alien characters, pet human. What purpose does the pet serve? What do they do? Can they do any neat tricks? What will they do for their owner? And what will their owner do for them?

*Pour one out for a fellow honey badger.

**I should point out that this is not in fact a judgement of her. I have a demon of my own, and while I occasionally wish Fender would be less bitey, I do love her.

 

The Asshole Who Lives Upstairs

Don’t go up there.

There is a voice inside my head. It’s inside everyone’s head, near as I can tell, though admittedly my statistical sample is small.*

This ubiquitous little tribe of head-voices are not the fun kind. They are the kind that only come out when you’re halfway through a project, or nearly done with a run, or trying to ask for a raise. It’s the voice that tells you that you can’t.

I call this voice the Asshole Upstairs. Because that’s what he** is: an unpleasant upstairs neighbour who only makes himself known when he’s ruining something.

Like: You can’t do that, what will people think?

Or: Skipped a workout today? Never mind that sprain, you’re weak.

And the always popular: No one will ever want to read what you just wrote.

See? Asshole.

Writers hear this little voice a lot. Maybe because we’re used to listening to the shit that happens inside our heads more closely than the average person. Our imaginations are strong. Unfortunately, not every part of your imagination is positive. Some parts of it are downright awful: the paranoia, the anxiety, the inferiority complex. All the parts that go into the voice of the Asshole Upstairs.

Having this guy around is like having a really shitty roommate that you can’t evict. You can try ignoring him and hope the lack of attention starves him to death. However, he never really goes away.

But, like many unpleasant things, it doesn’t mean the little shit can’t be useful.

I always work best if I have an enemy to aim at. If the enemy is inside my own head…well, that just means I’m keeping him nice and close, doesn’t it?

Never underestimate the power of spite. You might hear more noble rallying calls***, but I personally get a great deal of satisfaction out of making a delightfully obscene gesture at those who try to tear me down. Even if they’re a part of me. Especially if they’re a part of me.

It’s probably the vestiges of Angry Punk Teenager Me, living somewhere near the Asshole Upstairs, stomping on his ceiling with her big boots and scrawling graffiti on his door. When he gets started, she turns up some NOFX or Dayglo Abortions and drowns him out.

To everyone out there with their own version of the Asshole Upstairs camped out in their brain: you’re not alone. And neither is he. You just need to find another voice up there to drown the little fucker out while you raise a pair of middle fingers and get on with your day.

Because the best revenge is living well. Followed shortly by telling naysayers to fuck the fuck right off.

*In other words, I just asked a bunch of people I know about it. SCIENCE.

**Yes, I always think of it as a he. Don’t know why. Choose your own gender or let it be a mystery.

***I mean, not here, but somewhere.