How to get ideas for writing

It’s easy to get an idea for writing, said playwright Lajos Egri. Find inspiration by taking a quiet moment to observe the world around you and within you.

How to get ideas for writing
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To get an idea for any type of writing is the easiest thing. Look around you and be observant. Be observant and you will be forced to admit that the world is an inexhaustible pastry shop and you are permitted to choose from the delicacies the tastiest bits for yourself.

Lajos Egri. The Art of Dramatic Writing

‘The capacity to observe change is severely limited by the fact that much of our time is spent in incessant activity that does not provide a stable reference point. Encouraging “just sitting” is a simple way of quieting the body long enough so that that one’s focus can shift to other objects of consciousness, including the mind. Moving around and doing things requires a certain amount of cognitive processing capacity that tends to narrow the scope of attention to instrumental concerns. Sitting quietly, on the other hand, produces an interesting and somewhat paradoxical state of relaxed awareness, which in turn reduces cognitive demands and frees the resultant capacity for other purposes.

‘Quiet, relaxed awareness provides an ideal vantage point from which to observe change processes that are otherwise typically obscured. Manifestations are everywhere. Observation of the breath reveals phasic change from breathing in to breathing out. Observation of inner states reveals both regular and intermittent interoceptive sensations signifying a myriad of changes in underlying physiological processes. Observation of sights and sounds reveals a constant but often subtle flow of energy states captured by sense organs that are themselves constantly changing.’

Paul G. Salmon, Sandra E. Sephton, and Samuel J. Dreeben. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. In Mindfulness in Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Understanding and Applying the New Therapies.

Find your character’s inner conflict

Writers have to challenge their heroes and force them to face not only tough enemies but to confront their long-held beliefs and values.

Create your character’s inner conflict
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Great storytelling isn’t just conflict between characters. It’s conflict between characters and their values. When your hero experiences character change, he challenges and changes basic beliefs, leading to new moral action. A good opponent has a set of beliefs that come under assault as well. The beliefs of the hero have no meaning, and do not get expressed in the story, unless they come into conflict with the beliefs of at least one other character, preferably the opponent.

John Truby. The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller.

In ACT, the therapist is engaging the client in a kind of contest between two main players. On one side is the client’s mind. By “mind,” we mean the set of rules and relations that the client uses to order the world. Because so many of these are culturally established, it can be clinically useful to speak of “mind” as if it is another person or something slightly external (as indeed it is in the sense of being a cultural intrusion into the individual). On the other side, there is the wisdom of the client’s direct experience. The client has directly contacted certain outcomes. The mind and experience are in fundamental conflict. The therapist’s job is to challenge the client’s reliance on verbal rules so that experiential wisdom can play a greater role. The challenge is to undermine ineffective rules and replace them with contingency-shaped behavior, accurate tracks, and augmentals linked to chosen values.

Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl, and Kelly G. Wilson. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change

Failure is only a word

Frustrated by rejection, new authors can feel like failures. Their feelings of impatience, even anxiety, can lead to bad career decisions. Or to even give up on their dream.

Failure is only a word
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Frustrated newcomers can begin to do silly things to get the attention of publishing pros. A friend who edits romances for a major paperback publisher told me how at one conference an overeager author followed her into the ladies room—right into an empty stall—in order to pitch her manuscript. Did it work? No way!

Typically, authors express their anxiety in more subtle ways.

What is this anxiety really about? It can be experienced as the desperate feeling that no one in book publishing cares a damn about you or your manuscript. One can feel it as anger over slush piles (stacks of unrequested, waiting-to-be-read manuscripts), fury over long response times, frustration with uncaring editors or agents—one can even begin to resent the success of others. What began as bliss can turn to utter misery.

I would like to suggest that these overt signs of anxiety actually mask fears of a more fundamental sort. One is the fear of failure, the terrifying possibility that one has wasted years of one’s life. A second is the fear of humiliation—so many expectations to fulfill!
Especially one’s own!

Most fundamental of all, I believe, is the anxiety that derives from the need for validation. Above all things, writers want acceptance. They long to be judged worthy of publication. They want to be assured that they are not crazy. They need to know that all this time and effort have not been for nothing. If the breaking-in period becomes too lengthy or too frustrating, most writers will sooner or later get desperate. Some will start to avoid the whole process, refusing to push themselves. Others will keep at it doggedly but cynically, losing all excitement and hope.

That is too bad, because that kind of burnout can lead to ill-considered career decisions. And, these days, there is little room for error in the big, bad world of book publishing.

Donald Maass. The Career Novelist: A Literary Agent Offers Strategies for Success

James, a single, 31-year-old Caucasian male, is an aspiring actor and screenwriter…It became clear during the initial treatment sessions that it was his dissatisfaction with the current state of his life that was most distressing for James. He was frustrated with the lack of progress in his career and was struggling with thoughts of not having accomplished enough to this point in his life and fears of being a “failure.”

Through a series of direct experiential exercises in session, James gradually became less emotionally reactive to the word “failure.” For example, when presented with the word “failure” written on a flash card, James reported wanting to rip up the card and throw it in the trash. The therapist then asked James whether he was willing to put the card in his lap, simply read it, let it be, and have the card touch him as a thought. James agreed and was surprised to notice that he could do this without getting tangled up in what the card says. He was also willing to take the card with him over the next week everywhere he went. In addition, James and his therapist did an exercise in which they rapidly repeated the word “failure” for approximately 30 seconds while observing what happens to the quality of the word when doing so. James reported that after saying the word repeatedly “failure” was reduced to merely a string of almost unrecognizable sounds and he could see that it was ultimately just a word.

Exercises such as this helped James to become a better observer of his own thinking and he learned that he does not have to take his thoughts, even historically difficult thoughts, so seriously and do what they say. For example, during the course of treatment James completed his screenplay and put together a team of actors to present his screenplay to an audience for the very first time, despite experiencing occasional thoughts of failing throughout the process.

Georg H. Eifert, John P. Forsyth, Joanna Arch, Emmanuel Espejo, Melody Keller, and David Langer. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: Three Case Studies Exemplifying a Unified Treatment Protocol.

Create a character worth following

Define your characters’ morals and values to discover which way they would go in a crisis, and your readers will be more likely to follow too.

Create characters you can follow
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If your deepest beliefs drive your writing, they will not only keep your work from being contrived but will help you discover what drives your characters. You may find some really good people beneath the packaging and posing—people whom we, your readers, will like, whose company we will rejoice in. We like certain characters because they are good or decent—they internalize some decency in the world that makes them able to take a risk or make a sacrifice for someone else. They let us see that there is in fact some sort of moral compass still at work here, and that we, too, could travel by this compass if we so choose.”

Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

‘Defining a valued direction produces a more consistent compass heading to direct action during the storms of life, when waves of emotion crash and the screaming minds of the wind blast. Anyone who has engaged in mindfulness meditation for any period of time is aware of how fickle and changeable emotions and thoughts can be. However, values tend not to change so rapidly over time. If the therapist can help clients describe their most basic values for their life, clients can contact a source of stability in an often-chaotic landscape of changing thoughts and feelings. Once clarified, stated, and committed to, values can be like a lighthouse, providing direction during dark psychological nights and story situations.’

Jason B. Luoma, Steven C. Hayes, Robyn D. Walser. Learning ACT: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Skills-Training Manual for Therapists

Forgiveness isn’t earned

Forgiveness is free. It’s a gift. And it’s one you can give yourself. Even after you’ve written a really crap first draft.

The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman
The Magician’s Land

One of the first tasks of the writer, I have found, and not the easiest, is forgiveness: You must forgive yourself for writing crap first drafts. Perform whatever ritual of absolution you have to, pray to whatever cruel god or gods you have to, but do that for yourself. Only once you’ve forgiven yourself can you begin the serious work of writing, which isn’t writing at all. It’s revising.

Lev Grossman. Writing Advice From George R.R. Martin, Karen Lord, and Other Sci-Fi/Fantasy Authors, Flavorwire.

‘Most clients have a hard time with forgiveness, because it sounds like a change in judgment or evaluation. It sounds like ‘I used to think you were wrong, but now I’ve changed my mind.’ Worse, it may appear to be equivalent to emotional avoidance: excusing, denying, or forgetting old angers and hurts. But the word forgive itself suggests a more positive way to approach this difficult topic: We can take it to mean ‘give that which came before’—literally, fore-giving. It means repairing what was lost. Gift comes from the Latin gratis, or free. In that sense, fore-giving is not earned: it is free. However, the gift of forgiveness is not a gift to someone else. Giving what went before is most particularly not a gift to the wrongdoer. It is a gift to oneself.’

Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl, and Kelly G. Wilson. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change

Don’t let excuses stop you

Everyone makes excuses. It’s a part of what we do, just try to recognise them as excuses and don’t let them get in the way of your dreams.

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson
The Great Lover: A Novel

Lots of the people I meet on courses say that they’re waiting till their kids grow up, they’re waiting till they retire till they have time, and that’s when they’ll start their novel. My advice has been consistent for the twenty-odd years I’ve been teaching creative writing: don’t wait, there’s never a perfect time. Do it now.

Jill Dawson. Five top tips on writing from Jill Dawson. Retrieved March 11, 2014, from The Guardian.

‘As soon as you have to face any sort of challenge, your mind will come up with a whole list of reasons not to do it: ‘I’m too tired’, ‘It’s too hard’, ‘I’ll only fail’, ‘It’s too expensive’, ‘It’ll take too long’, ‘I’m too depressed’ etc. And that’s okay, as long as we see these reasons for what they are: excuses.’

Russ Harris. The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT

The power of metaphors

Metaphors offer clarity, a way of seeing old things in a new way. This is true of writing as well as in life.

On Writing by Stephen King
On Writing

When it’s on target, a simile delights us in much the same way meeting an old friend in a crowd of strangers does. By comparing two seemingly unrelated objects—a restaurant bar and a cave, a mirror and a mirage—we are sometimes able to see an old thing in a new and vivid way. Even if the result is mere clarity instead of beauty, I think writer and reader are participating together in a kind of miracle. Maybe that’s drawing it a little strong, but yeah—it’s what I believe.’

Stephen King. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

‘Metaphors are not simply logical, linear forms of verbal behavior: they are more like pictures. The point of the ACT metaphors is often hard to capture in a simple moral or verbal conclusion. Instead, metaphors present a picture of how things work in a given domain. Carefully presented metaphors can be a kind of experiential exercise—as if one had actually experienced the described event or story. The event is verbal, and thus the experiences are derived and not direct, but the impact of the talk is still more experiential because the talk used is not linear, analytic, or proscriptive. This is advantageous inasmuch as ACT is attempting to ground client action in the direct experience of contingencies and in rules that track those contingencies. Metaphors help set a social/verbal context in which overreliance on rationality is questioned and where the wisdom of directly experienced contingencies is more highly valued.’

Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl, Kelly G. Wilson. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change

Turn obstacles into opportunities

Try to be aware of your own apparent limitations, learn to accept them without judgement and find energy where there used to be obstacles.

Dear Life by Alice Munro
Dear Life

For years and years I thought that stories were just practice, till I got time to write a novel. Then I found that they were all I could do, and so I faced that. I suppose that my trying to get so much into stories has been a compensation.’

Alice Munro. On Dear Life: An Interview with Alice Munro by Deborah Treisman from The New Yorker.

‘By being with yourself … by watching yourself in your daily life with alert interest, with the intention to understand rather than to judge, in full acceptance of whatever may emerge, because it is there, you encourage the deep to come to the surface and enrich your life and consciousness with its captive energies. This is the great work of awareness; it removes obstacles and releases energies by understanding the nature of life and mind. Intelligence is the door to freedom and alert attention is the mother of intelligence.’

Nisargadatta Maharaj. I Am That

Don’t be bullied by your thoughts

You don’t have to let your thoughts lead the way. Find out what’s important to you, what truly matters to you, and let those values guide your actions.

The Writers Journey by Christopher VoglerTom Dunson, played by John Wayne in the classic Western Red River, makes a terrible moral error early in his career as a cattleman, by choosing to value his mission more than his love, and following his head rather than his heart. This choice leads to the death of his lover, and for the rest of the story he bears the psychic scars of that wound. His suppressed guilt makes him more and more harsh, autocratic, and judgmental, and almost brings him and his adopted son to destruction before the wound is healed by letting love back into his life.

A hero’s wounds may not be visible. People put a great deal of energy into protecting and hiding these weak and vulnerable spots. But in a fully developed character they will be apparent in the areas where she is touchy, defensive, or a little too confident. The wound may never be openly expressed to the audience — it can be a secret between the writer and the character. But it will help give the hero a sense of personal history and realism, for we all bear some scars from past humiliations, rejections, disappointments, abandonments, and failures. Many stories are about the journey to heal a wound and to restore a missing piece to a broken psyche.

Christopher Vogler. The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition.

Often we know full well when we’re making excuses—we just need to be honest with ourselves. But if you’ve set a valued goal, and your mind gives you a reason not to attempt it, sometimes it’s not so clear that this is just an excuse. So if you’re genuinely unsure whether the thought is merely an excuse for inaction, or a statement of fact about something that truly is impossible, just ask yourself this question: ‘If the person you care about more than anyone else in the world were kidnapped, and the kidnappers told you they will never release that person until you take a particular action toward your goals, would you then take action?’ If the answer is yes, then you know that any reason (for not taking that action) is merely an excuse.

‘Ah, yes,’ you may be saying, ‘but that’s just a silly hypothetical question. In the real world, the person I love has not been kidnapped.’

Right you are. But what’s at stake in the real world is something equally important: your life! Do you want to live a life in which you do the things that are really meaningful to you? Or do you want to live a life of drifting aimlessly, letting your demons run the ship?

‘Okay,’ I hear you say. ‘I agree that I could attempt this goal, but it’s not that important to me.’

The question here is, are you being honest with yourself? Or are you just buying into another thought? If the goal you’re avoiding is truly unimportant to you, fine, don’t attempt it. But make sure you check in with your values. And if this goal really is something you value, then you are faced with a choice: either act in accordance with what you value, or let yourself be pushed around by your own thoughts.

Russell Harris. Introductory Workshop Handout.