Tag: Writing Advice

Just Squander Yourself

Waves crashing on the beach. Photo by Mihaela Limberea
Waves crashing on the beach, Fregate Island, Seychelles.

The task is always to write every single piece like it’s your only one. It has to have that energy. Use your best material now. Just squander yourself. Enjoy it. I don’t want to read anyone’s tepid writing.

Parul Sehgal 

The quote comes from this excellent interview with Parul Sehgal, book critic at The New York Times, and former editor and columnist at The New York Times Book Review.

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard, along the same lines.

How To Handle A Creative Block & Avoid Distraction

Creative Block?

As creators, we’ve all been there, showing up to do the work, and nothing happened. Going through the motions, following the ritual (you do have a ritual?), yet the creative spark is gone, not even smoldering ashes left. The empty page.The blank canvas. The feared creative block. “Is it all gone? Will I ever be able to write anything? What’s happening?” That’s scary. I know it because I’ve been there. Too often.

Try Visual Writing Prompts

One of the tricks I’ve learned to jumpstart my writing when I feel stuck is visual writing prompts. I would pick a random photo and force myself to write the beginning of a story based on the image. Something short and easy to get me going. You can see an example at the end of this post.

I try not to use one of my own photos but something completely different, to force my brain into something new. A site such as Unsplash, offering free photos for download, is great for the purpose. (I may want to use a text in the future, so it’s good to know I won’t need to worry about licensing).

This gets me started at any time, just because I don’t have any expectations to produce something extraordinary or brilliant. I’m just supposed to write a few words; I can do that.

… And Avoid Distractions

Close up of a Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly on a daisy. Photo by Mihaela Limberea.
Don’t fly from flower to flower as a butterfly. My photo from my old garden.

However, more often than not, as my writing starts to flow, it takes me in a new direction. I’m suddenly drawn into a new story, and curiosity pushes me to continue instead of returning to what I was working on. It’s good fun, and the temptation is to go with the flow. The brain is skilled at taking the path of the least resistance, that old rascal.

This is where discipline comes in. I can’t afford to start on a new story; I have to finish what I’ve started before going in a new direction. It’s tempting to abandon the work when the going gets tough and respond to a new project’s sirens’ song. But all this approach does is make sure I don’t finish anything, ending up with many great starts with no ends. Ask me how I know.

Use a Slush File

This is where a slush file comes in handy. What’s a slush file, you ask. This is where all good but seducing ideas go. Got a great idea for a different project? I write it down and return to the project I was working on. Once I’ve finished it, I’ll visit the slush file and pick a new project.

… And Keep It Simple

My slush file is very straightforward: a bullet point list in Apple’s Notes app, points grouped by project. Something like this:

  • End of the world story, a prepper & his cousin.
    • “Prepper John” has a so-called shack middle of nowhere, in fact, a well-stored bunker. Remote island??
    • Cousin (she), a journalist, meets him at the shack for an interview on prepping.
    • Zombies!!

I keep the Notes app easily accessible on my phone’s home screen. I don’t need to search for it, or open folders and files. As soon as I get one of those tempting ideas, I just write it down quickly in Notes, and resume whatever I was doing at the time.

Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash

Visual Writing Prompt Example

I leave you with an example of a visual prompt. I found an everyday photo of a garage on Unsplash; these are a few story beginnings I wrote. I can tell you that I’ve used my slush file after this exercise. (Yep, I love a good zombie story, I admit. And terriers called Jexy.)

  • I was tinkering with my old motorcycle in my parents’ subbasement garage, with Jaxy as sole company, when the first zombies reached Stockholm. That saved my life.
  • Having my own space was the most important thing back then. Even if it was just a run-down garage with an astronomical rent and rich in cockroaches.
  • My new home office didn’t look much to the world, but it was my own. Only Jaxy seemed to think differently and barked at the battered van. I had to agree, “some renovation needed” was an understatement.
  • The morning the first undead burst into the city, Mats woke up in a dilapidated garage, his head pulsing with the mother of all headaches. A dog stared at him, tail wagging furiously back and forth. Where the hell was he? What was he doing in this, this…place? With a terrier? If it was a terrier, Mats didn’t know much about dogs and frankly, didn’t care. Of course, had he known about the undead, his view of things may have been slightly different.

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Writing Lately

Taking my own advice, I continue writing, despite alarmist media reports, gradual movement restriction in Sweden, and my own distraction. Creativity is hard work at any time, not only during a pandemic. So, I sit down every morning, turn on my computer, and start typing. 

I’m writing a short story at the moment. I was working on a novel but decided to pause it for a while. With a story, I can (hopefully) be done quickly, and that would give me a feeling of accomplishment. It’s also good fun writing it, and fun is a good thing these days. 

The funny thing (see what I did here?) is that I had completely forgotten about it. I had a few loose ideas, but I was working on a different thing at the time, so I just wrote them down, saved them in a “Writing Ideas” folder for later, and then promptly forgot about it. 

A few days ago, two years later, I was looking for something else and came across this file titled “The Author.” I had absolutely no idea what it was. I opened it, read the couple of pages it consisted of and, not to sound my own trumpet, but they were good! With a few funny twists thrown in for good measure. So, I grabbed the file, got to work, and ended up in that creative bubble where everything seems far away, even the coronavirus, and the world is warm, and nice, and fuzzy.

The learnings?

Koala by Mihaela Limberea www.limberea.com
A cute koala for your enjoyment. View on Black Photo © Mihaela Limberea

1) Always carry paper and pen with you and jot down any idea that you get. You will not remember it later. I’ve placed small blocks of paper and pens strategically everywhere in the house and my pocket when I’m out. You could argue, of course, that you can use your smartphone, but I favor paper and pen. I enjoy leafing through the pages, slowly, back and forth, for the incommensurable joy of the unexpected connections that sometimes may jump at you from the pages.

2) Use a folder to organize these loose thoughts so you can easily find them later. Whether the folder is digital or analog doesn’t really matter, it only needs to suit your organizational system. You do have one I trust? 

Then let them marinate for a while, while you can carry on with your ongoing projects. You can come back any time to look for some ideas when you’re stuck or ready to kick off a new project.

Chance, or fate, or just the butterfly effect may sometimes lead you to the end of the rainbow too. All you have to do is trust your creative genie.

Stay safe. Stay healthy. Stay calm and soldier on. And don’t forget to laugh. 

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