New Year’s resolution: Get back to writing every day and finish some of those pieces that have been languishing in the proverbial desk drawer. It’s time to bring back that writing mojo.
You’ve hit a wall, you say? Well, let’s bust right through that wall, shall we?
Writing isn’t just an activity for us; it’s a core part of who we are. Can you write for fun? Absolutely. But I have a feeling that writing is more than that for you, much the same way playing guitar for Keith Richards isn’t just about doodling around on the weekends.
That’s why when we get that block, it’s beyond frustrating. Everything comes to a grinding halt. It’s like running in quicksand.
I’m a sports fan: baseball in particular. So when one of my favorite players goes into a slump, it can be excruciating to watch. For the player himself, it’s oh so much more agonizing. Every player goes into a slump at some point, and every player eventually comes out of that slump. When they do, they typically go on an exhilarating rampage that leaves the opponent quaking in their boots.
For 2022, let’s get our writing on an exhilarating rampage. The kind that leaves readers salivating for more.
In this piece, I’m going to share five ways I jump-start my motivation and inspiration for writing. If you’d like, go ahead and play Start Me Up by The Rolling Stones while you do it.
Let’s get started.
“Wait a minute,” you say. “You want to inspire me and get me excited about writing and you’re going to start by talking about math?”
Alright, calm down. As kids we all had to be convinced that math is fun, and most people still need convincing as adults.
However, I’m not here to convince you that math is fun. I want to convince you that it can be useful in writing—or more precisely, numbers can be useful in writing. Numbers are everywhere, and they can be used in so many ways to help move our writing along.
Painters and composers have been using math in their creation process for centuries. Music, basically, is math in sound form, as time and tempo are mathematical calculations.
Leonardo da Vinci is legendary for using the mathematics of geometry and linear perspective in all of his art, and most famously in Last Supper and Vitruvian Man. So why not use it in the writing process?
Using numbers when we write can have many benefits. Numbers can give your piece symbolic meaning connected to the theme of the material. For example, Anthony Burgess constructed his dystopian novel, A Clockwork Orange with twenty-one chapters. He said this was used as a symbolic reference to twenty-one being the accepted age of human maturation, a direct connection to the storyline of the novel.
In the example of Burgess’ novel, numbers could also function as goal posts to strive for because the finish line has been set at twenty-one chapters, which is where you need to get to, one chapter at a time.
In your own writing, you can break those goal posts down even further by perhaps establishing a certain number of paragraphs per chapter—and that number can also tie into your theme.
Perhaps you could plan your book to have twelve chapters because it’s the beginning of the year and your goal is to finish the book by the end of the year; each month you’ll complete a chapter. Or, maybe you could have a specific number of characters in your story that relate to the number of eccentric neighbors you have.
Numbers can also be used in playful ways or in a manner that adds layers and depth to your writing. For example, if seven is your favorite number, you could use it throughout your writing. Seven could show up in many places: addresses, phone numbers, character ages, or the number of evil spaghetti monsters the protagonist must face.
In fact, the number seven plays a big part in the Harry Potter book series. That being said, a reader can enjoy the Harry Potter stories just as well without ever knowing that a certain number plays such a big part.
I mention this trick for the writer’s benefit. If the readers catch on to it as well, then it becomes that additional layer I mentioned above, but for the writer it can be a wonderful source of inspiration.
Use numbers to your advantage; whatever works for you. Make it fit your style, your writing habits, your thematic goals, etc. Using numbers as goal posts or markers throughout your writing journey can be a great motivator, while using them to add depth, or playfulness, or even an inside joke can provide loads of inspiration.
Ah, sweet thoughts of youth! Truth be told, nostalgia is one of the most powerful emotions there is. There are myriad examples in literature where the writer wants to create a sense of nostalgia for the reader. For our purposes here, however, we want to create nostalgia in ourselves, the writers, to motivate and inspire us in our writing.
When I say that nostalgia is a powerful emotion, I mean that it has the power to transfix us in a special way. I bet we can all think of people we know, or possibly even ourselves for that matter, who have bought things—maybe even expensive things—in the name of nostalgia, like a rare toy from childhood or an exact replica of a first car.
This kind of behavior is not always a good thing—sometimes it can even lead to problems—but if we can harness that raw, nostalgic emotion and channel it into our writing, it can be used to inspire characters, places, and so much more.
An example from my own life that has always had a profound effect on me, and something that I often wax nostalgic about, is the way the sun would set on the neighborhood I grew up in. I remember it with perfect clarity and it always inspires a wonderful feeling in me.
When I was young, I used to say to my Mom that the way the sun set on our neighborhood was better than anywhere else on earth. It created a specific light effect that I found nowhere else. When I’m writing something that takes place on a sunny day, I think of that. That exact blanket of sunlight inspires the words and feelings I write down, because it’s so vivid for me.
Tapping into past memories is similar to what actors do to get into a role. They conjure up experiences from their own lives to create the emotions inside them that they will need to convey the feelings of the character they are portraying.
The great thing about nostalgia is that it’s palpable. You can feel it as though it’s happening at that moment, like the pulse in your body. In fact, a 2013 article in the New York Times examined the new science around nostalgia and some interesting research being done on the topic.
One of the findings by the researchers was that nostalgia is universal. No matter where in the world someone lived, their experiences of having nostalgia were no different from someone who lived on the other side of the planet.
Understanding nostalgia from a scientific perspective is a wonderful discovery. Conscious efforts to use it in our writing can create universal appeal by tapping into those nostalgic emotions. My own wonderful feelings about a neighborhood sunset could translate into as many languages as there are on this planet—and that’s what we want our writing to do.
If you fill yourself with those joyous, nostalgic feelings—which sometimes also include sadness or frustration—and then channel them freely into your creative process, don’t stop yourself or second guess. Write automatically (you can edit later;) you’ll be amazed by what comes out.
The term “fix-up,” and its use in writing, was coined by a mid-20th century science fiction writer by the name of A.E. van Vogt. He developed this as a way to create new content.
The process is straightforward: He would take several short stories that he had written that had similar themes and/or topics, and find ways to connect them together and make a longer, coherent piece of writing.
I have found this technique to be incredibly useful. The process of weaving together several old, dusty pieces gets me writing again and gives me renewed interest in mostly forgotten works of mine.
Fixed-up work does not need to be several short stories turned into a novel. It can be thoughts or inspired moments turned into a short story or flash fiction. It can be anything, of any length, put together with other material or thoughts you’ve written.
In a crude way, it’s like that new, inventive Sunday dinner that was made from all the week’s leftovers.
What does combining previous pieces have to do with inspiration and ending writer’s block?
First, it allows you to take short pieces, which might either be incomplete or needing a refresh, and start working on them again with a renewed vigor. Second, the process of weaving different pieces together—creating deeper storylines—provides a new home for older works that may have otherwise languished in a dust pile.
Fixing up past work also takes some of the stress out of the writing process, as you no longer have to bang your head against that proverbial wall wondering what to write next. The words are already written; just find a way to connect it all together.
By going through this process of connecting, intertwining, and weaving, you produce a creative avenue for yourself. In turn, this can provide you the opportunity of looking at some of your writing in a way that you may not have thought of before. Naturally, this fuels the inspiration that can lead to the creation of a new, exciting work.
I believe a great story makes the reader think and feel, not merely one or the other. When we write, we should do the same. It’s difficult to have a block or to be in need of inspiration if we are thinking and feeling as we write. This section offers some tips to help keep your head and your heart in the game and keep the pace moving.
As a concept, objective correlative is the attachment of an emotional cue in something or someone in a story. This concept was championed by T.S. Eliot in his essay, Hamlet and His Problems.
An objective correlative could be an object that the protagonist encounters, such as a photograph. Perhaps the photograph shows two young people enjoying each other’s company. It could be a photo of the protagonist and another character who has now become a source of pain in the protagonist’s life. The protagonist looks at the photo and remembers the way they were before, during happier times. The photo holds a strong emotional connection with the character.
The objective correlative technique can be used to powerful effect. It could also be used to connect different ideas to one main thread, á la Fix-Up. Whatever makes you—the writer—feel a sense of excitement, joy, mystery, wonder, curiosity, anger, etc. can be used as the emotion tied to the object for this correlative approach.
Using this technique can spark inspiration and motivation, because now you’ve brought something personal into the story, assigning it the meaning that you want and sharing that meaning with your readers.
Abductive reasoning is a concept similar to its cousins deductive and inductive reasoning, except where those require complete truth or partial truth respectively, abductive reasoning requires neither, merely the most logical conclusion. This is a nice fit for narrative fiction.
For example, the protagonist and another character have been fighting, but in a quiet moment when the protagonist is alone, she looks at a photo of herself with the other character and they are smiling and have their arms around each other.
Abductive reasoning would tell us that at one time in the past, the two were close. We don’t know that for a fact, but it is the likely conclusion and can be used to drive the narrative of the story in a meaningful way.
Employing these two techniques, Objective Correlative and Abductive Reasoning, can add insight, mystery, or simply a streamlined narrative to your work by using cues instead of long exposition to convey meaning. Those cues can then lead the readers down a certain path where tantalizing morsels of character reveals and dramatic flourishes are gradually presented, while still leaving room for interpretation.
This will help keep your readers interested, but it will also keep you, the writer, interested as well—and keep you writing.
As writers, when a story idea comes to us, or even a character or setting that we can’t shake, we know we need to write about it. I don’t know about you, but no matter how indelible that story idea is in my mind or how unshakable that character is, I often find myself starting to feverishly write what I have in my head, only to hit a brick wall after that. Where does the story go now?
What is one way I overcome the block? It’s a four-letter word called meta. Meta is what’s known in the film world as breaking the fourth wall, like at the end of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, when he looks directly into the camera and tells everyone in the theater to go home.
Meta in writing is the breaking down of the imaginary barrier between writer and reader. Meta is the acknowledgment of the craft of writing in the story itself.
I get it. You might have never thought of yourself as a writer in the vein of Borges or Beckett, who both used meta in their writing, but maybe now’s a good time to expand your horizons. Breaking the barrier between reader and character doesn’t have to be used in all your work, but when you really hit a snag, it can come in handy.
For example, the next time you’ve taken that restless idea in your head and poured it out onto the page, only to slam head first into the wall right after, go ahead and make your character hit a literal wall in the story; a wall that’s been graffitied with the words writer’s block.
Then the character has to find a way over the wall, or around it, or whatever. It’s an acknowledgment of the writing process and the fictional environment, making it part of the metaverse, but it’s also an exciting and hopefully stimulating new trajectory for your character, providing inspiration and motivation for you, the writer, as you explore this crossover between the world of fiction and reality.
Obviously, this won’t apply to every story but I offer this just as an example of turning to the metaverse for ways to move forward in the writing process. It can also be used as a placeholder for those moments when we don’t know which way to go with the story.
These meta moments can at least keep your writing going and, at some point, you’ll either discover what you want to do with that part of the story, or you may decide you like the metaverse and want to keep it there.
Each of the techniques I’ve shared have been abundantly useful for me, but what I especially love about them is that I can use one or two of them to help me out of a block situation or for a burst of inspiration; or I can actually use all of them in conjunction to create a story from scratch.
For the latter purpose, I would explain it this way:
After the steps above are completed, you can begin the rewriting process. But there’s one last thing to keep in mind.
Creativity can’t be forced. Therefore, having done all you can to help yours emerge, don’t forget to let creativity flow. Relax, rest both of your forearms on top of your head, while you lean back in your writing chair (that one that has a busted wheel or stuffing coming out of the cushion, but no other chair will ever be as good,) and smile.
Smile, because you’ve put in some solid, steady, robust writing that you can be proud of and your creative chakras are open and flowing like a fire hydrant in mid-July.
We’re writers. Now let’s write!
Loving life as a father and husband, Kris works as a digital video engineer who spent most of his younger years in movie theaters indulging his passion for cinema. He's been writing stories for many years, keeping them in his back pocket and prefers reading and drawing inspiration from a disparate group of writers that include Roger Ebert, Herman Hesse, Paul Bowles, and David Byrne.