What to do when you’re struggling for ideas

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Sometimes I’m out of gas – running on empty – and the ideas just aren’t coming.

I want to write, I’m sat waiting for inspiration to strike. And I’m still waiting.

What am I doing wrong? And what could you do differently?

You wouldn’t be here at all

The first thing I should have done is kept the hopper full. The hopper is the collection of jottings, the notes from the day. The things you noticed, the things that stood out, the things that made you stop.

And the hopper doesn’t need to be that full. Say you write once a day, like I do, all you need is two or three ideas in the hopper and you’re sorted.

If it stood out in the first place, it’s probably a good one – good enough to get a first draft out anyway.

You’d look around for inspiration – go wide

We’re surrounded by stuff that could inspire us. All you have to do is pick up a book, or do a search and see what else is out there. The chances are that something will catch your eye.

The trick is taking an idea and making it your own. It’s not enough just to copy something that someone else has done. That’s no use.

Instead, it fusing a few ideas together and coming up with a new one that creates something interesting.

Still stuck? Focus – go deep

Robert Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance tells the story of a student who came to him, wanting to write a 500 word essay about the United States.

He had a sinking feeling, and told her that might be too much – to focus instead on their town.

She came back and was still struggling. Narrow it down, he said, to the main street of the town.

Still no joy – she couldn’t think what to write.

He was furious now, she just wasn’t looking.

“Narrow it down to the front of one building on the main street”, he said, “Start with the upper left hand brick“.

She came back with 5,000 words.

Narrowing it down and starting with the smallest detail had finally unlocked it for her.

Finally, step away – but only when your forehead starts to bleed

Much advice on becoming unstuck says to take a break – but when is the right time?

Not straight away. Not right at the beginning.

First – spend some time just staring at the screen. Focusing. Willing yourself to have an idea.

Just sitting.

Why is that important?

Because what you’re trying to do is get your mind to move, like a stuck screw. And like that screw, you can’t just try once and walk away. You need to try it every way, apply some pressure, hammer it, scream a little – try until you’re exhausted and can’t do any more.

Then you walk away.

Then… you’re brain does its magic thing and moves and unlocks. When you come back, it happens – the screw turns and the ideas come pouring out.

And when all else fails?

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