Recent blogs about the author’s process have been personally helpful and reaffirming, so I’d like to continue the discussion by writing about the author’s pre-process – ways to uncover the perfect, albeit illusive, idea. Even more to the point, how does the author deal with that period of time just before the kernel of an idea breaks out? Hint: space.
Consider this: The last book has just gone through its final edit and it is out of your hands. The baby is on its own, to sink or swim, to sing or clunk. What’s next? Everyone and their mothers-in-law seem to ask the big question: “So, what are you doing next?” Gulp! Next? Is there a next? How often does this happen to you?
If you are lucky a new and exciting project awaits. But that’s not always the case. And it’s one thing to have a next project, and another to have a next project that is desirable. For example, when I finish a demanding human rights topic for young adults, I like to follow it with a colorful photo essay for very young children. Professionally, it gives me a sense of balance and breathing space. It acknowledges both the joys and the sorrows nonfiction undertakes as we realistically depict the world around us.
But there are times when I’ve experienced the absolute reality that I have no new ideas. There will never, ever be an idea as interesting, fun, saleable as my last book! “So what are you working on now?” That phrase haunts my waking hours. It creeps into dreams. It’s the 500 pound gorilla in the room – along with how old are you? and how much money do you make? – asked during school visits. Nothing. Nada. No idea. Try saying this at a party. It’s a great way to drink alone.
Over the years I’ve developed a few tricks – do’s and don’ts – to get me over the no-idea hump. Here are but a few. Please feel free to add, subtract, or challenge this list.
Don’t devote entire days to household projects. It only keeps you from thinking about writing. You can clean closets anytime, even when on a deadline. Don’t try to make every recipe in the Barefoot Contessa’s latest cookbook. Again, it takes away from literary thinking and you will gain about eight pounds. Trust me, I know this. If you don’t heed my advice on this one, change the quantity of butter to olive oil.
Don’t take on your craziest family members’ problems and try to reform them. It will only lead to a fight and won’t change anything. You will still have no new ideas – that are legal or printable. Don’t go shopping. It’s depressing to see all the beautiful things you can’t afford because you have no new ideas to help pay for them. On second thought, maybe this should go into the “do” section as it reaffirms that you will have a new idea eventually, hopefully before the bills arrive. You’re on your own with this one. Don’t indulge the notion that you will never have a new idea for more than 72 hours. After that, it gets old and boring to those near and dear. Of all the don’ts, if you can handle the time frame of the last don’t, feel free to indulge in the other four, but try to keep it down to as few hours as possible.
All these “don’ts” are getting me down. Let’s move on to …
Isabel Allende, in a Q & A about writing, said, “Few people know how to be still and find a quiet place inside themselves …. From that place of silence and stillness the creative forces emerge; there we find faith, hope, strength, and wisdom.” I couldn't agree more.
Give yourself the gift of silence. Let silence, like the pause between musical movements or the white spaces around Asian poetry and art, give your creative juices time to recoup. Visit someplace beautiful: spend time with a favorite painting in a museum, walk along the river, look up at a big sky. The ocean and a white sandy beach work best for me, but that’s not always accessible. For those of you who live in New York, there is a room in the Japanese Gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that is very spare, Zen, with the soft, trickling sound of water on stone. No chatter, no cell phones – heaven!
Spend time writing your own stuff: journals, blogs, word prompts. Or not! I know an author who simply stares at a blank screen on his computer for hours. Eventually, he says, the screen fills with ideas. Sometimes your last book can lead to your next book.
Revisit old research notes and see if anything new pops up. Read something unrelated to your work. Sun rises, birds singing, and good poetry anthologies often jump start my creative juices. Take a yoga class!
These do’s and don’ts are not just for writers. They work well for school projects, lesson planning, and library talks. I bet many of you have even better ways to get the imagination back on track. If you have a particular gem, will you share it with us?
I began this blog about two weeks ago when, panicked, I had no new ideas. Then, I followed my own advice – silly girl – and tried out the do’s. Lo and behold, it worked! Not one, but four, four new ideas are currently at various levels of proposals. Oops! Here comes another one!