Updated: Aug 31
Successful writers share their "insider" secrets
“The air is full of tunes. I just reach up and pick one.”
Willie Nelson made finding creative ideas sound easy. Any artist knows that the only way to keep working is to keep coming up with new ideas. That’s not always as easy as ole Willie made it sound.
Recently, through reading, (my all-time favorite way to come up with ideas), I came across mention of two interesting techniques. That discovery got me researching. Most of us writers have our own stash of idea-generating strategies, but we can always pick up new ones. Might as well get them from successful, published authors.
12 titillating techniques for getting creative ideas
1) Read old local newspapers
First, Donna Tartt’s profile piece, an “homage,” really, to the author Charles Portis who penned True Grit in 1968, explained Portis’ favorite method of coming up with ideas.
“He liked nothing better than to go to the library and read rambling ‘local color’ pieces in the archives of rural newspapers. Those homely old American voices — by turns formal, tragicomic and haunting — are crystallized on every page of his work, with the immediacy one sometimes sees in a daguerreotype 150 years old.”
What a great idea. To get dialogue and dialect, plot and history in one fell swoop of the microfilm machine or the digital archives of newspapers across the world.
2) Use a “word of the day” to inspire a story
Cameron Engle shared this in his Medium story, “Your Path to Creativity.” His technique is to look up the Word of the Day and use it to inspire a story. You might learn a new word, but the purpose of the exercise is not to focus on the meaning of a vocabulary word but to let that word be the impetus of the story you create, like the kernel in a piece of popcorn, that thing that made it explode.
3) Visit yard sales
Donna Tartt, author of The Goldfinch, got the idea for her Pulitzer-Prize winning novel from going to a yard sale. She saw a print of “The Goldfinch.” Her writer’s brain kicked in, creating a story around that piece of artwork.
4) Go to an art exhibit
Alice I Have Been, a novel by Melanie Benjamin, was inspired by her trip to an art exhibit featuring Lewis Carroll’s photography. If you live in a small town without access to art galleries, there are online exhibits and virtual tours, and of course, gorgeous, full-color books of artwork to kickstart your creativity.
I’ve personally observed the impact of techniques #3 and #4:
5) Collect something
The idea for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs came from his collection of old photographs. Since he couldn’t afford to collect artwork or expensive prints, he picked up old photographs. Then he began to see that he was drawn to weird, creepy kind of Victorian ephemera. His book was born.
6) Read something you hate
The poet and creator of Crush, Richard Siken, suggests reading something you hate to prod your creativity.
“When I read work I hate, I get motivated to make something in opposition to it.”
Interesting theory, although when I dislike something, my first impulse is to quit reading. Maybe I’d be more successful if I stuck with it!
7. Sort through ALL ideas; don’t discount any of them at first
Ann Patchett says that ideas are not good or bad. All ideas are worthy. They just have to be put through a filter for quality. She uses the analogy of a water faucet:
“The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap.”
8. Watch movies
Sounds like crazy advice. Don’t we all long to lounge around watching movies? Colson Whitehead, a two-time Pulitzer-prize winning author, watched a lot of zombie movies and then decided to take those ideas, forming them into a different kind of writing.
9. Research medical conditions or diseases
Facts are stranger than fiction, and nothing is stranger than unknown illnesses and pathogens. (Current Coronavirus situation included.) Lots of authors and filmmakers have looked at pandemics as a source of inspiration. (Sounds twisted, doesn’t it?) This advice comes from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Jeffery Eugenides, creator of Middlesex.
10. Go forth and observe
Maya Angelou once wrote a poem called “Impeccable Conception,” about a woman who wrote romances from her solitary isolating in her home. The point was that she needed to get out and live it instead of just imagine it.
Successful writers know that you have to be part of life to write about it effectively.
Judy Blume: Go people watching. (Writers, this is where the practice of writing in coffee shops, malls, hotel lobbies, and airports takes root.) Observe them, and then imagine their lives.
Mark Haddon: Take an ordinary situation and twist it. Make it “not normal.”
Rachel Kushner must have learned from Maya Angelou. Her advice? “Engage in the world.”
11. Walk through a cemetery
It’s not morbid. It’s fascinating and factual and inspiring. You can thank Geraldine Brooks, author of Year of Wonders for this idea. She quips,
“Don’t be afraid to see dead people.”
A close corollary of Geraldine Brooks’ advice comes from Mitch Albom, writer of Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven, says he gets creative ideas by writing about people close to him who have died.
If you’re searching for interesting names, check the tombstones. You’ll also get epitaphs, ideas of family relationships, observations on infant mortality, and imaginative backstories. I’ve contemplated a book based on the fictional lives of people in a graveyard — including the irony of a husband and wife buried together, forever, who actually couldn’t stand each other in real life. (Probably a fate worse than death!)
12. Keep a “figurative language list” and notes on random things
Ah. Another one of my absolute favorite parts of being a writer. I love writing things down in notebooks: snippets of conversations, weird facts, beautiful sentences, tidbits of trivia, quotes and notes of all sorts. I have notebooks of various sizes, shapes, and styles covering three decades. The idea of recording observations is not an innovative approach for writers, but it’s a tried-and-true one for generating creative ideas.
Denis Jonson, author of Tree of Smoke keeps notes on all kinds of random things. (Amen!)
This Boy’s Life author, Tobias Wolff, encourages writers to take extensive notes on their childhood.
Remembering conversations and using them is a strategy used by Cormac McCarthy.
Marilynne Robinson of Housekeeping fame keeps a running list of figurative language. Beautiful similes, metaphors, allusions, analogies are all preserved and perused for inspiration.
Junot Diaz maintains an inspirational journal. Filled with photos, clippings, and letters, the journal was the impetus for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
Creativity oozes out when we fill our brains with possibilities. Ideas are everywhere. They’re swirling around my head, waiting to be plucked from the air and pulled down to earth, held captive in my computer and prisoner of my pen.