Having just released two books in six months — the first, a collection of women’s stories and poems about the ’60s and ’70s, and the second a memoir that took seven years to write — I felt lost, empty, and spent. I would sit at the computer with the intention of writing, only to check email, peek in on the doings of my friends on Facebook, and tidy up my desktop. I’d open up a blank document and stare at the screen wondering if I had anything left in me to write. At times, I despaired, wondering if I was even a “real” writer.
My feelings were an understandable and normal response to completing a major work, not to mention having to maintain the energy required for ongoing marketing efforts. But I couldn’t allow myself slack — I wasn’t writing, and I was terrified that if I couldn’t get creatively moving again my so-called “writing life” would become just another item on the long list of things I used to do.
Here are four techniques that work to get my fingers moving and the words flowing again. I hope they will help you, as well:
- Curate journal entries: Method #1. If you keep your journals on your computer or device, this method will work well for you. If your journals are handwritten, the second method of curating will be easier.
- Select a one-word concept or object, such as “frustration,” “healing,” “water,” or “garden” (really, anything will work) and conduct a word search through your journal for every instance this word or concept occurs. Also search for synonyms. Using “water” as an example, you might also search for “ocean,” “sea,” “lake,” “pond,” and “liquid.”
- Copy and paste sentences or phrases from this search into one document, paying no attention to order or connections between them.
- Read through the new document without editing, noticing themes that emerge: emotions, images, life passages. Circle these thematic phrases and make notes about what comes up for you as you read them. For example, when I curated entries in my journals related to water, I was surprised to find that Loss emerged as a theme.
- Now, with an eye to your themes, work your way through your new document, removing all extraneous words and phrases, keeping only those that work. Rearrange and combine sentences or phrases.
- Work your piece into a poem, or use these thematic fragments within a prose piece.
2. Curate Journal Entries, Method #2: If your journals are handwritten, so that searching for a particular word is cumbersome, another way your journal can help you open the flow of words is to browse through journal entries — pick a journal from at least a year past — until you find an entry that carries an emotional charge. Expand it into a memoir vignette, personal essay, or poem.
3. Write a rant. The key to writing a rant is to let strong emotions — anger, disgust, and frustration — direct your writing.
- What’s your pet peeve? Write a letter to your local editor complaining about it. Or write a full-on rant about what’s happening politically that you don’t like.
- After you’ve written your rant, write a rebuttal to your initial point of view.
- Then combine the rant and rebuttal in one piece. You could do this in the form of a fictional scene in which a conversation takes place, weave the different points of view into a personal essay, or distill the essences of the pieces into a poem.
4. Write in an unfamiliar genre.
- If you write fiction, write a short piece about a true event in your life.
- If you usually write poetry, switch to prose for a day. For example, I usually write nonfiction, personal essay, and memoir, so it helps me to let my imagination free once in a while. When I write a short story, bit of flash fiction, or learn a new form of poetry, my creativity re-engages.
Of course, these four techniques can be used any time, not just when you’re between projects and feeling like a chimp trying to write. But I have found them to be particularly helpful for those times when I am between writing projects and need a jumpstart to get my creativity flowing again.
How about you? Have you experienced this between-project ennui? What has worked to get you writing again?
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