My apologies to the small backlog of Weekly Procrastinations. If you wrote to me recently, I fully intend to get to your letter, but this one has been bothering me since it arrived last week, because I think the answer I’m going to have to give is one I didn’t anticipate having to say to anybody here.
This may be a rather dumb and pretty vague question, but it’s something that’s been troubling me for a while.
My problem isn’t getting words out, per se, it’s ideas. I know you talked a bit about this in your latest Procrastination, but my problem isn’t deciding which ideas to nurture and make stories, it’s a complete and utter lack of ideas in my brain. I’ve even tried freewriting but it never gets me anywhere. I’ve even tried prompt sites but nothing I found really interested me. I’ve got little elements I’d like to write about, things I’d like to -put in- a story (quirks about a car, or the traits of an interesting customer at work, etc), but my brain doesn’t seem to want to provide stories to go around them. Maybe I’ve just gotten picky and self-doubting and I just throw out anything that might come to be a story idea if I don’t think it’ll be any good?
Have any advice for this kind of thing?
This letter broke my brain, I have to admit. As someone who can’t relate to the concept of “not having any ideas,” I struggled with what you could mean. I even asked friends for advice, because I desperately wanted to give you a good answer, one that wasn’t the first that came to mind. I’ve got three answers to your question, and if you don’t like hearing things that might be a bit critical, skip the last one.
1. Maybe you’re a songwriter. Okay, I am not the one giving this answer. I asked my friend Allison, who is a songwriter, what she thought about this, because I know she struggles with her own writing sometimes. She said, “That’s writing songs, you’ve got this little snippet of a thought or a phrase that sticks in your head, and you write the song around that distilled concept.”
I am not a songwriter, unless pajama-dancing in the kitchen while composing jingles about your cat having a fat butt counts for something. I find songwriting and music to be mystical and amazing. Like glassblowing and people who can write your name on a grain of rice. I’m not a poet, either, but maybe that’s how poetry works? I don’t know. I don’t even understand how someone can be a songwriter without knowing how to “do music,” but you know, “lyricist” is something people can be. So maybe write a song about that customer and see if it feels right. There. Go write a song. That’s only the most impossible thing I can think of.
2. You’re freaking yourself out. You said you’re throwing out things, so that means you’ve got something to throw out. What are you throwing out? Thoughts? Concepts? Paragraphs? How do you know if something is bad if you haven’t at least put three words down? You can start with just three words, right? Ten or so will make a haiku. Maybe you’re a haiku writer! Greeting cards! Fortune cookies! I’m seeing a whole world of tiny writing opening up for you.
I find that when people complain that they don’t have any ideas, they’re often saying, “I don’t have any ideas I don’t think make me sound stupid.” To which I say: that’s what writing feels like all the time.
(I’m going to have to start a section within the Weekly Procrastinations called That’s what it feels like all the time!)
There’s a lot of pre-writing before there’s writing, no matter how long or short the writing will eventually be (Ask people in advertising, television, or getting their masters degrees if you want to know just how long people can have to pre-write before they actually write.) Coming up with ideas great and crappy is part of the process. Even when you have a great idea, there will be times when you think it is a crappy idea, which is pretty much what’s going on 99% of the time you are working on it.
It might seem like I’m trying to talk all of you out of being a writer, which isn’t really goal here, but still, here’s answer number three.
3. You might not be a writer.
Wait, come back. I say this because I can’t tell what you want to write, if you’ve written anything, if there’s a goal or a passion in you to write. If you go through story prompts and nothing sparks, if you do freewriting and feel like you’re just spinning, I don’t know what to grab onto in order to encourage you forward. Is it the creative side that makes you feel helpless? Do you like research and writing more technically? Is it that you like reading so much that you wish you could write? Is there a romantic notion you see in writing that you’d like to be a part of? Would you be happier writing in a corporate environment, possibly one where you are handed assignments, and not expected to come up with what you’ll write?
This is not me telling you to give up on a dream. This is me asking you to expand your concept of what you could do.
I work with editors, agents, producers and development executives, and their jobs include — sometimes exclusively — helping a writer along with a project. They come up with the snippets and details. They spot the holes, the flaws. They recognize when they hear a good idea, a horrible one, or something that’s been done too many times. They have an ear for a new voice, an alternate path, a concept that might be risky or smart. I come to them with rough drafts, treatments, ideas and outlines, and they work with me to make things better than I could have imagined, stronger than I could have done on my own. They are there to make sure I don’t lose sight, that I keep things moving on time, and that someone has my back when this thing goes public.
I couldn’t do anything I do without agents, editors, producers and development executives. They are my teachers, mentors and sometimes tough love parents I’m constantly trying to please. I sit here and write thinking of them, hoping they’ll like a joke I wrote, an idea I had. We make little partnerships as we try to move a story forward in whatever shape it ultimately takes.
You don’t have to be a writer to work in storytelling. You don’t have to type FADE IN to work in film. If you don’t get inspired to write that might be because you’re not a writer. But that doesn’t have to be bad news.
But look, you started with saying you have a “complete and utter lack of ideas,” which will definitely make it difficult to work in any creative endeavor. To that I say: you might need a vacation. Or a massage. Or a silly night with some good friends. Something that makes you chill, girl. If writing isn’t your job, why make it feel like so much work?
Mel. Your letter kind of bummed me out because I imagine you’re just sitting in front of a spiral notebook, doodling random polka dots, cubes and daisies, beating yourself up for not filling those pages with inspired genius. Crying and doodling, wishing you had a different brain.
I guess there’s plenty of ways you can work in this business without having any ideas or talent, but you’ll be waiting on luck and cashing in on charm. Or sexual favors.
Maybe you guys can help me with this, because I don’t know what else to suggest. Do you often feel like you have a “complete and utter” lack of ideas? When you do, how do you break through it? Was there a point when you concluded you were definitely not a writer? And was that the happiest day of your life?