Where do writers/artists/creatives get their ideas? And what do you do when those ideas stop coming?
In her book, The Art of Asking (which I HIGHLY recommend), Amanda Palmer describes artists as people connect the dots between otherwise unrelated things. This allows them to create patterns that can be expressed in metaphor, story, art, etc.
It’s a beautiful idea and it speaks very profoundly to me as a writer and someone who wants to professionally connect those dots.
Anyone who does anything creative for work or as a hobby, from time to time or more often than not, is good at connecting the dots. Most creative people have some innate talent to notice these patterns in the world but any one who is any good has likely had some amount of training, too. I can imagine a beautiful painting in my mind, but my hands can’t bring it to life.
Writing is the same way. You can construct the most elegant, powerful, heartwrenching story in your head but if you can’t get the words right, no one will ever be able to share it with you.
But what about when you can’t wrap your mind around the dots? What about when the connections don’t come? Can skill overcome such a challenge?
When You Can’t Connect the Dots
I’ve noticed that my ability to connect the dots ebbs and flows and is influenced by a few different factors. Here a few influences that might sound familiar to other writers out there:
Stress – stress makes the connections stop. Most of my dot-connecting is done in the background noise of my mind, floating to the surface when it’s stumbled on something really fun or really silly. Stress means all that energy is spent instead on worries and anxiety dots, not fantasy worlds and plots dots.
Environment – sort of the opposite of stress, the right environment can open up the flow of ideas and increase the connections and patterns being made. We have a Japanese Friendship Garden here in Phoenix and if I go there and wander around for 30 minutes, I’ll walk out with a dozen new story ideas. It’s like magic.
Doubt – this feeling has been known to paralyze writers. When Imposter Syndrome strikes, you begin to fear that any dots you do connect aren’t the right ones, the best ones, or even really connectable at all. That scene you wrote is not as good as it sounded in your head. No one will like your story. You start to think of yourself as someone who can’t connect the dots and, more importantly, someone who shouldn’t be allowed to.
What to Do About It
Know thyself. — Aristotle
No, really, know yourself. Once you know what stopgaps your dot-connecting, you already have the tools to fix it. It’s different for everyone and the same solution doesn’t always work.
Stress is my greatest obstacle, so knowing how to alleviate that stress will be my greatest tool.
Sometimes, I just need to walk away from a scene or a chapter for a day or two. Is my apartment a mess because my life is a mess and the place where I live took a backseat to something else? A temporary answer is to go write at my favorite coffee shop, but a stronger response is to take 15 minutes and just clean the place up a bit.
I have spent the last two years taking writing seriously and, in the process, developing my writing style and getting to know myself and how my creativity works. There have been some surprising revelations along the way. Over the summer, I tried three separate writing routines and only one mostly worked.
You have to know what pushes your buttons, what helps you put your writing back on track, what your own goals are and which methods work best for you.
Don’t know where to start? Check out how other writers/creatives handle their dot-connecting issues and give those a try. You might stumble on something that helps you build your own strategies. Just remember…