Writing Inspiration for the Uninspired

In The Autobiography of Mark Twain (edited by Charles Neider, but possibly in other arrangements of his autobiography), Twain writes about “filling the well” when he experiences writer’s block (he doesn’t call it writer’s block, which sounds like a place where authors live). One of the techniques that worked for him was playing billiards. Just like the most productive workers aren’t the ones who regularly put in overtime, but rather the ones who are able to balance work with play, so the most effective writers aren’t the ones who sit down every day and pound out something on the computer, but rather the ones who take time to “fill the well” when inspiration leaves them. And make the habit of sitting down every day and writing something, but never mind that.

Here are some of the techniques I’ve discovered work well for filling that well for when I’m not feeling well about my writing well. It’s not a profound list, but it is a true one.

Go for a walk

Star this one, circle it, highlight it, staple it to your forehead, commit it to memory. Going for a walk is one of the best things to do when the writing isn’t coming. Heck, just getting outdoors has miraculous healing powers. If you can’t go outside, doing exercise or movement of any kind tends to help.

Clean

A cluttered house often makes a cluttered mind. There’s something about the physical act of cleaning up your workspace/room/house that lends itself to uncluttering your mind, too. It also has to do with that movement thing I mention above.

Read

Inspiration for writing comes from what you read, so if you’re stuck, reading a book can help. In fact, you should be reading at least as much as you write. And while you can read something that directly influences your writing (such as reading the same genre of book), it’s more important to choose something that inspires you and is well-written. If you’re reading something that’s poorly written, you can learn a lot about what not to do, but you won’t draw much inspiration from the words.

Be sociable

Contact with people is essential to writing about people. Even if you’re writing about pigeons, you should hang out with people.

Listen to music

Probably not something with lyrics. I find classical music works well. What you want is a mood, or at least something to distract the part of your brain that hates you and doesn’t want you to be a writer.

Play

Like Twain playing billiards, sometimes you should put aside the writing for a bit and do something purely for fun. When you come back to it, you’ll find that your well has miraculously refilled itself. Or that you’re an expert billiard player.

Too Much to Write About

Writer’s block exists for people who only focus on one thing at a time, and try to force that creation into being. I discover it when not diversifying my projects or when my self-editor appears during the rough draft phase. Not all solutions can be solved quickly, and I often have to put a work away for an extended period and come back to it before I find writing or revising it easier than extracting water out of an ice cube frozen to the side of a polar bear, but that’s not my main problem with writing. My main problem is that I have too many things to write about.

Let’s say I only wrote about my life. To do that, I have to stop living for several moments in order to get that life on paper. To wait is to forget, which results in an entry filled with “I think”s and “I believe”s and “I’m not sure”s and where chronology is suspect. I also must set aside time to reflect and recall all the important details. If I remember details later, they arrive as footnotes marked with asterisks.

Or let’s say I only wrote fiction. To find subjects for fiction, I must read, and study, and live. Bonded to a computer is no way to write a work of art or entertainment. Poetry writes itself in the first draft, but I must come back to it when the rhythms are still fresh in my mind, and then again when they have become stale. Personal essays? Same thing: they take time, and always more time than I think they will, and when they are finished I have another idea for something to write about.

For example, I’ve thought about writing another post on copyright law, specifically international copyright law. This was spurred on by the news that rarefilmm.com, a website that streams public domain and non region-1 movies (you can watch for free, but a membership gives you more options), had its accounts frozen by PayPal, possibly due to an anonymous complaint about copyright infringement. In this article, I would’ve started out by writing about Wagner on the Web, a review website that got on the bad side of Bayreuth lawyers who didn’t realize that the site “featured” its recordings only in the sense that it featured reviews on them, and so sent cease-and-desist letters to its creator, who was not a corporation and didn’t have deep pockets to fight this injustice. The post would’ve been labeled “International Copyright Law and the Corporatization of the Internet.” Of course, with a title like that, I’d have to prove that this is the case, which would require hours of research — otherwise, I’m the same as everyone else who airs unsubstantiated claims as if they’re trumpeting the second coming of Christ. And then if I didn’t find any information on this phenomenon, I’m left with a memory of what happened to one site and a possible motive behind PayPal freezing the account of another.

And what was the effect? It prevents art from being spread to people who have no means of seeing it in the case of rarefilmm, and it leaves the reviews of various Wagnerian recordings to professionals who write behind paywalls — or Amazon.com — in the case of Wagner on the Web. Now, I’m all-for getting paid for writing, and if Wagner on the Web had been closed down due to that copyright infringement, I would’ve understood, but not for trumped-up charges. And if studios aren’t making movies available in the U.S., then why not have a website where you can see them? They aren’t hard copies and could be removed if the rights to those films were purchased over here, but glancing at most of the titles still in copyright, they aren’t going to make money for the studio, so what’s the motive? Artists want their work to be seen, heard, and read. Copyright law gets longer and more punitive, but we should be going the other way: shorter copyright times, longer public domain holdings. After all, the conceit that we own any of these ideas is a Western, writing-based society one. Pay me for the idea, but after so many years, let it go out into the world and fend for itself. And then I’ll release another idea into the world.

So yeah, I have too many things to write about, and the only time I get around to writing about them is when I sit down and write about them — as I’m doing now. 🙂