It happens to all of us at different points in our writing lives: we hit a stretch where we can’t seem to finish anything, or the ideas have dried up faster than morning rain on an Arizona highway. It happened to me this last year when I finished one novel and was excited to start a fresh project, except each novel idea I started fizzled out. They weren’t right. Same went for a few short stories I had rattling around in my head. I’d make it halfway through before casting each aside. Even poems felt forced. I felt stuck. I WAS stuck. And I was breaking Neil Gaiman’s wise and important rule: “Whatever it takes to finish things, finish.” It was a hollow, scary feeling.
But instead of sitting back and waiting for inspiration to strike, I tried a few of the methods below to jumpstart that old excited feeling, to help me start something I could finish. I picked these up from other writers, so it's not like these are fresh, original ideas, but they helped me out, bit by bit. I’m hoping that if they worked for me, they’ll work for you.
Head to the Junkyard
When I felt like I hit a creative wall, I took an inventory of what I had in stock that wasn’t finished or needed work. One thing I noticed was that my OLD POETRY folder on my laptop had a lot of poems that didn’t work or just bits and pieces of ideas. I spent a few nights going through and stripping away everything that wasn’t worth keeping. Sometimes it felt like I was ripping apart an old car just to find that one bolt that still had some polish on it.
Some of these lines and phrases became seeds for new poems. And when I found some poems and stanzas that didn't feel complete, I tried re-writing them as blocks of streaming text instead of my usual free verse. The narrative format let me play with punctuation and flow in different ways. A few of these ended up as really great unexpected pieces in a style I never used before, and it felt good to get something worthwhile out of what I thought was a scrapheap.
Frankenstein Those Poems
A few times during this process, I took some of these poems scraps and pieces, and even some full poems that just wouldn’t work, and I mixed them in together. If you look for similar themes this can work well, but sometimes putting two totally different poems together and going back and forth between the different streams of thought using new transitions to sew together the places where you made the surgeon's cut can create interesting results. It’s worth trying, and I got a couple more keepers out of it.
Flash Is Your Friend
I also tried something a new (for me) with some poems in my junk pile: I converted the poem into a flash fiction piece. A lot of my poems have a running narrative through them, so I just fleshed that narrative out. I got rid of the precise poetic economy and filled in the blanks, expanded on ideas, explored parts of the poems I had originally left out. Some of these flash pieces were just little one page stories, and some became a thousand words. And yeah, some went nowhere. But to see a poem that wasn’t working one minute and have a completed 600 word story the next, it felt damn good. I was following Gaiman’s advice. I was FINISHING things.
Seeing this conversion, I decide to try the process again, but backward. I had a half dozen stories that fell flat after a few pages, but I kept them around. I decided to strip out a paragraph here and there and try a few poetic styles with them, coming up with some couplets, some free verse pieces, some narrative poems, etc. It felt good to be happy with eight or nine poems rather than staring at the unfinished stories sitting dead in my thumbdrive. Most of the text didn’t make the leap from fiction to poetry, but enough did to make it worth trying.
Who Needs National Whatever Month?
Last November during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, as the cool kids say) I had just finished a novel and didn’t feel like my other ideas were up to the challenge, so I opted to do my own 30 day exercise. I tried writing a new flash fiction piece every day, even if it was a page long. It was hard, as all those challenges tend to be, and it was my first time writing flash. But I ended up with about 35 stories, and after some time to let them simmer through the revision process, most of them worked out. These 30 day challenges can feel passé sometimes, but they can also force you to get something done. One little thing every day. It adds up. It gets you out of a funk. Don’t want to write poems in April? Don’t. Write character studies instead. Or write a letter to someone telling them something you always wanted to say, that they’re important, that they suck, or just to say hi. One letter a day. Or, like I did, try flash fiction. Try poems. Try journal entries. Go for that damn novel. Challenge yourself, just for you, and I’ll bet something good comes out of it.
But most important, just keep writing, whether you're in a 30 day challenge or not. Even if you don't know what to write, there are options out there, there are styles unexplored. Everything you need to get yourself fired up and finishing things is closer at hand than you think. Just don't stop writing.
(This column originally appeared in The Blue Mountain Review.)