Finding Ideas: The Pasteurisation of Stories

Aspiring writers, they tell you only amateurs wait for inspiration.

Real writers establish a routine.

So you make time to write.

Everyday.

But still nothing comes.

You switch from laptop to notebook.

But your page is as blank as your screen.

You think of Tolkien and Rowling.

Did they have the same magical powers they wrote about in their stories?

The thing is, we all have that power.

We’re all human. We all have an imagination.

So how do we tap into it?

When I first started writing, this process was a huge mystery to me.

How could I just sit down and write if I didn’t have ideas?

I discovered you don’t.

Not if you really feel stuck.

While we do need to write regularly if we want to improve, we also need to know when it’s time to look outside ourselves.

A lot of writers are introverts. We treasure our time alone. So much of writing is thinking. But sometimes it’s too easy to get trapped inside our heads.

Of course our minds can be a rich sources of inspiration too. We all have unique life experiences. Even if we don’t want to write about ourselves, memories can be wonderful prompts for short stories or poems.

But even with all these thoughts sloshing around in our heads, we can still get stale. We overthink and become blocked. When this happens, the best thing we can do is step away from our desks.

Change the scenery

If you’re stuck for ideas, try visiting a new place. This doesn’t mean you have to jump on a plane. Where haven’t you been in your home town or city?

I like to visit new museums, galleries and exhibitions. Sometimes a painting will give me an idea for a setting or situation. If you think about it, many artworks are story scenes in themselves. If a picture captures my attention, I’ll start wondering about the people in it and ask myself questions. Who are they? Why are they together? What’s just happened? How are they feeling? What are they going to do next?

Museum objects have the same pull for me. I often find myself speculating about the people who used the items and what their lives were like. Some of my favourite museums are the small, local ones that are not curated. It’s like walking into a garage sale or an antique shop. Information plaques are scarce, but this leaves me free to dream and imagine.

If museums are not your thing, other places work well too. Take a hike in a national park, go to a local market or hop on a bus to a new suburb. Don’t be afraid to try unusual places either. Geraldine Brooks came up with the idea for Year of Wonders while visiting a graveyard in an English village.

Keep moving

Recent studies have suggested there is a connection between exercise and creativity.

Writers have known this for years.

It’s the reason why Charles Dickens’ novels convey such a strong sense of place. Dickens, who suffered from insomnia, used to take long walks around London at night. He even wrote a collection essays about what he saw.

He’s not the only one.

Kurt Vonnegut did push-ups and went swimming.

And Haruki Marakami is a big advocate of running.

There’s a large body of research that shows exercise can help people fight stress and anxiety. Looking at it from this angle, using exercise to fight writer’s block makes perfect sense.

Exercise makes us relaxed. When this happens, all sorts of ideas start to emerge from our subconscious mind. Think about some of the dreams you’ve had. Only this time it’s even better because you’re awake, so you’re more likely to remember them. Just don’t forget your notebook next time you go jogging!

I find that exercise where I don’t have to think works best for me. If I’m counting sets in the gym, I can’t focus on anything else. The sweaty surroundings are not very inspiring either! But if I’m out walking, I’m free to daydream and the scenery is constantly changing.

Yoga’s good too (although I tend to do it my way). When I try to empty my mind, I start thinking about a story I’m working on. I’m supposed to be meditating, but sometimes that’s when I get my best ideas. I let them come. I figure I’m still benefiting from the class, but in a different way.

Next time ideas are trapped in your head, get your body moving. Experiment with different types of exercise and see what works for you.

Look around

Have you ever wondered where Maurice Sendak got the idea for his famous children’s book Where the Wild Things Are?

He based the illustrations of the ‘wild things’ on his relatives. When he was a boy, they would come to lunch every Sunday and say he “looked so good we could eat you up.”

If you’re new to writing, you might be cautious about including family in your stories for obvious reasons. After all, Sendak’s relatives were dead by the time he admitted to this.

But you’ll probably find aspects of your friends and family members creeping into your stories without realising it.

Characters don’t appear from nowhere. The most memorable ones are usually a mixture of people the authors knew or observed. Characters may even contain parts of the writers themselves.

To help this combination process along, spend more time people watching. No need to set aside time to do this. You can easily build it into your day. Take your lunch break in a park or busy café. If you’re travelling, observe your fellow passengers (discreetly of course!) Airports and public transport are full of fascinating characters.

Read other writers’ work

I used to worry that all the good story ideas had been taken.

If you’re writing a mystery, it’s easy to believe that Agatha Christie has used up the best plot twists. But imagine if she’d had the same thoughts. What if she’d decided not to write about Poirot or Miss Marple because Arthur Conan Doyle had ‘done it all’ with Sherlock Holmes?

All the greats borrowed. Stan Lee and J.R.R Tolkien inspired George R.R. MartinTolkien’s stories were influenced by the medieval poem Beowulf. Beowulf’s author was an anonymous man who lived about 1000 years ago. If he were around today, he’d probably tell us he was influenced by earlier tales. He certainly wasn’t the first person in history to write about dragons.

The point here is not that these well-known authors were plagiarising, but rather absorbing elements of what they had read and blending them with their own life experiences, interests and interpretations to create something entirely original. They may not have even been consciously aware of it at the time.

A few months ago, I went to a gelato appreciation class for a friend’s birthday. I was amazed by some of the flavour combinations. OK, so I don’t think chopped tomato goes well with vanilla ice cream, but I can see why other people would love it. Look how popular salted caramel is at the moment.

We all start with the same ingredients.

Don’t be afraid of reading as much as you can, both inside and outside your chosen genre. You never know when you might find the missing ingredient that helps you create your own flavour.

Be patient

When I first started writing, I used to think that a brilliant, fully-formed idea would strike me one day without warning. I’d rush home and wouldn’t be able to stop writing.

While there are stories of this happening, it doesn’t work like this for most authors.

Australian writer Kate Morton captures this on her website where she explains how she thought of the idea for her complex historical novel The Forgotten Garden.

A book is never one idea: it is thousands of tiny idea-fragments, carefully selected and polished, that fit together mosaic-like to form a complete picture. I am a collector of such fragments and inside my mind there sits a great, dusty trunk — wooden and antique, I like to think — into which they are dropped over days, months and years, jumbling together until such time as they are needed. Some are images — snippets that I have glimpsed or gleaned; others are snatched pieces of overheard conversation, facts that I’ve read, issues that I’ve wondered about and puzzled over, and observations of the people whom I’ve met.
— Kate Morton

Sometimes we think we have no ideas, but in reality they’re already there. It’s often about piecing together small sparks of inspiration from different moments. This doesn’t mean we should avoid writing anything until all our ideas have come together. Make a note, so you don’t forget these fragments and then start writing about something else until they’ve had time to develop.

Morton’s description shows us how mysterious the creative process is.

Our minds connect thoughts in different ways.

But we can help the process along by treating it like making ice cream. There’s a kind of pasteurisation going on in our heads as we mix and heat up all of our ideas. As with gelato, our thoughts need time to settle and cool before we can shape them into a narrative.

Sometimes we don’t mix our ideas enough and they come out lumpy. Or they melt as soon as we take them out of the freezer.

But if we’re patient, and keep looking for ingredients in different places, we can all come up with something magical.

A Journey to the Other Side of the Earth

Moving to Spain would be easy, I told myself.

After all, this wouldn’t be the first time I’d changed countries. And this time I’d only be two hours away.

Five years earlier, I’d followed in the footsteps of thousands of young Kiwis before me, leaving New Zealand to embark on my big OE to ‘the motherland’ aka England. OE is slang for Overseas Experience. It’s a phrase that was coined in the 1970s to describe New Zealand’s version of the working holiday.

Perhaps it had something do with growing up at the bottom of the world on a group of islands with less than 5 million other people. But I couldn’t wait to see what was out there.

The best part about living in London was that I was always a short plane ride away from immersing myself in a completely different culture.

I’d been to Spain several times on holiday and had a pretty good idea of what I was getting myself into.

Or so I thought.

This time it wasn’t a gap year — I’d already had a very extended version of that. Moving to Madrid was a carefully planned and researched career move. I was reaching the end of my twenties and felt stuck in a job I’d outgrown.

I wasn’t sure how long I’d stay in Spain. But I was certain that teaching English would combine my interests and values in a way that my existing job couldn’t.

I’d been writing since I was a kid and had always been fascinated by the quirks of the English language. And my travels in Europe had given me a taste for learning more about other cultures. Besides, teaching would give me a chance for creative expression as well as a high level of independence.

I enrolled in a course a few streets away from my office, studying in secret over evenings and weekends. I was happy to take the risk of moving to another country, but I didn’t want to be pushed before I was ready.

By the time I’d finished, it was Christmas. Spanish schools were already a term into their academic year and no longer recruiting teachers.

But I’d already half-opened the door. How could I close it for another nine months when I’d already glimpsed what lay beyond?

I waited only until my teaching certificate arrived in the post. Armed with this new get-out-of-jail card, I booked annual leave and flew to Madrid to attend interviews and doorknock at language schools.

One academy offered me eight hours a week teaching Business English at an international company.

It wasn’t much, but it was enough to give me the confidence to jump.

I returned to London and gave notice to my astonished boss and colleagues.

A few weeks later I was back in Madrid — with no Spanish language skills and no where to live.

It was Semana Santa (Holy Week) and accommodation was scarce. Well, cheap accommodation, which was all I could afford since I’d abandoned my full time job.

I spent the first night in a hostel close to Puerto del Sol. Situated over a bar with many more around, the walls thrummed all night.

I’d moved from a country where the pubs closed at 11:30pm. At that time in Spain, they’re just getting started.

They even have a verb for it:

Trasnochar = to stay up all night (or go to bed late — depending on how you look at it).

I was to see plenty of examples of trasnocharduring the time I spent in Madrid. My students’ ability to party until the small hours and still function in class the next day was mind-boggling.

But I was a Kiwi and an introvert with English blood, and it was my first night in Madrid. I lay in my lumpy bunk bed, heart palpitating with every beat below. Finally, exhausted from working through my long to-do list in London, I fell into an uneasy sleep.

Someone once told me that if you drilled a hole in the Earth from New Zealand you’d end up in Spain.

I couldn’t have got further from my world without leaving the planet.

Over the next week, my anxiety grew as I tried to deal with the morass of getting a NIE number, opening a bank account and buying a SIM card with my non-existent Spanish. Somehow I’d imagined they’d be a lot more English-speakers to help me manoeuvre through all the red tape, especially as I was in the capital.

My eight hours of teaching (spread over four days) were not even in the city centre. Dreams of wandering down to a sunny plaza for a café con leche before class quickly faded. Each day I descended into the bowels of the earth to take the metro to Avenida de América station. From there I’d catch a bus to the outskirts of Madrid where I’d deliver after work classes to tired professionals at a soulless business park.

To compound the situation, the teacher I was replacing had gone back to the UK leaving very few handover notes and no curriculum in place.

I remember sitting in the hostel one night, trying to make sense of the sparse teaching materials and sobbing uncontrollably.

What had I done?

What was I doing here?

But how could I go back?

What would they say?

My family? My friends? My ex-colleagues?

It’s OK to be terrified

Sometimes, no matter how much we plan, we get in way over our heads.

Madrid taught me that it’s OK to be scared and doubt my decisions.

We can only grow when we know what it is to feel truly afraid. On its own, fear can’t hurt us. Only our reaction to it can do that.

We’re usually stronger than we think. We’ve got to learn to get comfortable with feeling fear, and then push ahead anyway.

It’s OK to ask for help

I stayed in Madrid for two years, but I couldn’t have done it alone.

There was the colleague who helped me navigate the Spanish tax system.

Another who got me a summer school job.

The chatty receptionist who helped me practice my Spanish.

And the local friends who took me to the hospital when I got food poisoning.

Independence is a wonderful thing, but sometimes we need to swallow our pride and ask for help.

It’s OK to go backwards

Getting out of my comfort zone was a life-changing experience — but I didn’t do it all at once.

In Madrid, I made a point of living with Spanish speakers rather than fellow English teachers. I wanted to have more authentic experience and improve my Spanish. But that didn’t mean I was immune to culture shock.

While I was living in Madrid, I took a holiday to New Zealand to see my family. I also organised some short trips back to London to visit old friends. Once I was back at work, I made sure I spent some of my free time hanging out with other teachers and expats.

If you’re moving to a new country, don’t succumb to the pressure to immerse yourself completely. It’s OK to have moments when you want the comfort of familiar people and things around you

What happened next?

I continued trekking out to the business park and pieced together a new program for my students.

A month later, I was able to pick up extra classes with another agency and later got a part-time summer school job teaching kids in the suburbs.

By the end of the summer, I’d secured a contract for the next academic year with a well-established school in the centre of Madrid. They offered strong professional development opportunities for new teachers and I stayed with them for the rest of my time in Spain.

I continued to teach at different locations as some of their classes were held in businesses and local schools.

But there was always time for a café con leche in a sunny, city plaza.

Over to you

Have you ever moved to a new country? What were your biggest challenges and how did you deal with being out of your comfort zone? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

This post first appeared in the Journal of Journeys publication on Medium.

8 Reasons To Explore Creative Writing (Even If You’re Not An Aspiring Author)

“Creative writing (noun): The art of writing literary works such as poems, novels, plays, memoirs, or biographies.” –
— The Free Dictionary

Have you ever felt curious about creative writing, but been put off by descriptions like this?

These kinds of definitions seem to be written for all the aspiring William Shakespeares and Jane Austens out there.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of these authors. I’d love to write works as well-loved as theirs. But it’s not my main motivation for writing.

If it was, I might never have started.

When we think of creative writing, we often feel pressured to create an entire story, play or poem. But the definition is more fluid than that. Try googling it. You won’t find a consensus.

Instead of trying to define creative writing, why not think about what it means to be creative?

When we’re being creative, we’re doing more than presenting information. We’re using our imagination to express our emotions, create original things or use existing ideas in new ways.

Now that covers a lot more than just poetry and novels.

Let’s take a look at eight reasons why you should consider creative writing.

1. It has something for everyone

If we’re going with this interpretation, creative writing becomes limitless in its size and scope.

If you want something highly structured, you could try screenwriting. If you prefer to let your thoughts wander, freewriting or journaling might be a better match.

You can choose to keep your writing private or share it with the whole world.

We’re all capable of creativity. We just need to find the right outlet.

It doesn’t matter whether you’ve only got a few minutes or a whole afternoon. You’ll always find something that fits your time, interests and ambitions.

Creative writing is open to anyone who can write.

Here are some things you could try that go beyond novels and poetry:

Journaling, blogging, haiku, creative non-fiction, flash fiction, speeches, vignettes, anecdotes, character sketches, lyrics, skits, jokes, reflections, personal essays, game narratives…

You get the idea.

2. It makes other types of writing less scary

Creative writing can take the pressure off when we’re writing more functional pieces such as job applications, reports and academic essays.

If you have to write a job application, try freewriting about your previous experience. Why would you be a good fit for the position? Set a timer for 10–15 minutes and write whatever comes into your head. Avoid trying to structure it like a cover letter and don’t worry about using formal language. Let it all out. The idea here is to brainstorm and have fun without being overwhelmed.

You could also experiment with writing dialogue. Imagine you’re in the interviewing room answering the panel’s questions.

When you’ve finished, read back over your writing. Highlight any parts you could use when you write your application.

Next time you have to write something for work, try freewriting. You might be surprised by what you come up with.

3. You can share your experiences

Not every creative writer started out by dreaming of being an author.

Many published authors transitioned into creative writing when they discovered it was the best medium for telling their stories. Others took it up as a way to promote their businesses and help others.

Last month I attended a symposium for writers. I met several presenters who didn’t set out to be authors, but have used creative writing in the form of books and blog posts to share their passions with others.

Clare Dea was born with Poland syndrome, which meant her left breast never developed. She couldn’t bring herself to tell anyone about it for 28 years. Her book The One Breast Goddess was part of the process that helped her overcome her shame and appreciate her beauty. By sharing her story, she has encouraged others to express their authentic selves.

Solène Anglaret started off in the corporate world, but her extensive travel experiences inspired her to write her memoir Where to Next? . She has built up a business around promoting multiculturalism and providing advice on international mobility. You can read more of her writing on her blog Be Beyond Borders where she shares the stories of international travellers.

Take a moment to think about your personal history, interests and knowledge.

Is there anything you would like to share with others?

4. You can capture memories and experiences

Creative writing is how I make sense of the world around me.

My husband does this by taking photos and making videos. This is great because when we’re visiting a new place, my phone stays in my bag. But I still come home with visual memories of our trips.

In the meantime, I’m free to observe and absorb what’s going on around me, so I can capture it later in writing.

Sometimes my writing makes it into a story. But often it’s my own way of taking photos and preserving special moments.

Keeping a journal doesn’t mean you have to write in-depth summaries of everything you do each day. You can be as selective as you want. You may choose to focus on someone new you met or an activity you tried for the first time.

Alternatively, you might want to record your memories of life-changing events such as getting married, having children or moving to a new city.

5. It’s relaxing

One of the great things about creative writing is that it can help us get away from the stress of everyday life. I actually find it more effective than meditating because it’s easier for me to stay in the present moment. My mind is far less likely to wander if I’m absorbed in a character’s thoughts and problems rather than my own. Creating stories gives me a chance to escape to another world. After a creative writing session, I always feel much calmer and happier.

If you’re not into writing fiction, you can achieve the same effect by sitting in a public place and describing what’s going on around you. Let’s say you’re lying on the beach. A family next to you are having a barbecue. What do you notice? Try zooming in on small details — sights, smells, sounds, tastes and texture.

Dad flips the sausages, revealing a lizard tattoo running down his left arm.

The scent of charred onions drifts over.

There’s a soft thud of a spade going into the sand as Mum helps the kids with their sandcastles.

Your mouth tastes salty from the swim you had earlier.

You wriggle your toes, feeling the grittiness of the sand stuck between them.

6. It can lead to personal growth

Sometimes we may want to confront difficult feelings rather than try to avoid them.

Diaries are one of the oldest forms of creative writing. They give us the freedom and privacy to explore our darkest fears, greatest desires and deepest shame.

Psychologists use similar techniques to help patients work through problems and heal from trauma.

Creative writing can be a valuable tool for personal development in other areas of life too.

Get to know your own strengths and weaknesses by doing some reflective writing after your next performance. By performance, I mean any situation where you have to demonstrate your skills in front of others. That might be giving a presentation, attending an interview or sitting an exam. Make sure you write about both the things you did well and the areas you need to work on to avoid being too critical.

You can use reflective writing as an opportunity to set learning goals. Try brainstorming strategies for working on your weaknesses.

7. It can improve your language skills

Because creative writing is so different from other types of writing, it heightens our awareness of language and challenges us to use it in new ways.

This is also true for those who are studying English as a Second Language.

Writing stories, whether personal or imaginary, is a great way to practise using new vocabulary and sentence structures.

When you’re writing pieces like essays or business emails, you’re usually working within a more rigid structure. Perhaps you’re slotting in set phrases you’ve memorised.

But when you write creatively, you’re expressing feelings closer to your heart. This will help you form a deeper connection with the English language and develop a unique writing voice.

If you want to keep learning, it’s vital that you get feedback on your writing. Choose someone who is supportive, but can also give you constructive criticism.

One option would be to hire a tutor or coach. Or you might prefer a more informal arrangement such as meeting with a language exchange partner or sharing stories at a writers’ group.

8. It will challenge you

Creative writing can be challenging in other ways too.

Some people do crosswords or Sudoku. I write fiction for the same reason. I love the puzzle of fitting together different parts of a story. I get to be creative when I’m inventing characters. And working out a storyline pushes me to think logically and analytically.

Earlier this year, I wrote a historical fiction serial set over two time periods. I tied myself up in knots trying to map out the plot. But once I untangled it all, the end result was incredibly satisfying.

It doesn’t have to be stories if that’s not your thing. I know other people who get the same kick out of writing poetry, creative non-fiction and stand-up comedy.

The most important thing is to have fun!

Creative writing can be anything you want it to be, so why not give it a go and see if it’s for you?