The blank page is every writer’s closed door. Even though I know what I’m writing about, I’m often stuck at how I want to tell the story. Sometimes I find myself banging on that closed door for hours, screaming “let me in!”
Over decades of a writing career, I’ve learned this is an exercise in futility.
Inspiration is the key to unlocking the door, but where do writers find it?
In one of our recent team meetings, I asked the Version A writers to share where they were most likely to discover their keys. In this lightly edited transcript, we talk about how little nuggets of genius often appear in unexpected places.
Diane: I’m always interested in how writers work through writers’ block or develop really ingenious hooks for articles. Where do each of you find inspiration?
Heather: Mine’s pretty easy because it’s usually a place. It’s while I’m exercising in the gym. And it often happens in the pool. Swimming is the one thing I do where my mind can wander.
I’ll just start thinking about certain things I’m working on, especially if I’m stuck. And then, I’ll just find that an idea pops into my head for a great headline or theme to follow for the piece.
The other place I often get inspired is the car. Unfortunately, I spend a lot of time driving kids from place to place, but there aren’t a lot of distractions, especially if I’m not chatting with my kids or I’m driving home alone. It’s a natural place for things to randomly pop into my head, versus trying to force it.
When you’re just sitting at the computer trying to make it come, it doesn’t work. But during my mindless swims and when I’m in “Uber Mom” mode, ideas just pop in. I’ll get a little nugget or place to start, and then I can easily write from there.
Diane: I like that phrase. Uber Mom! Tara, what about you?
Tara: Very similarly, ideas come when I’m doing a repetitive physical task like riding my bike or when I’m driving. A lot of times what gets the process going for me is one perfect sentence or phrase I really like. If it’s something I’m really inspired by, I’ll pull over and write or dictate into my phone.
Diane: My last blog post, I dictated the entire thing into Word.
Tara: I remember you said you don’t look at the screen as you write. You just try to dictate until you get to the end.
Diane: Yeah, that’s right. It’s a fast way to get an ugly draft down because I’m not tempted by distractions. I often turn the brightness of the screen down until it’s dark, then type. I’ve also used the dictation feature in Microsoft Word or Google Docs. It transcribes as you’re talking, which is pretty cool. Anna, it’s your turn!
Anna: I’m a lot like Tara, where if I have a sentence I can work on then the rest of the piece comes a lot more easily to me. I’ll spend a chunk of time building an outline, but I won’t really know how to get going with it.
Most of the time that sentence or theme, like Heather said, or the headline, will come to me in the middle of the night. I’ll be awake in bed, trying to fall back asleep and then that’ll just pop into my head. I have to wake myself up enough to write a note or send myself an email.
Obviously, that’s happening more now that I have a newborn! But I’ve never been very good at sleeping. I’ve often found myself lying awake in bed and just going through things in my head. I get up and write down that one little thing. Of course, sometimes I wake up and I’m like, “this makes no sense.”
But it’s enough I can jump on that and get the ball rolling on everything else. It’s usually not a starting point because I have my outline of my research done. But it’s that little catalyst to get the writing started.
Diane: I think we all have the same thing in common. We just have to totally disengage from the page in order to get some inspiration. I should say disengage from the blank page, because I actually get my inspiration by walking away and opening a book, usually one on a completely different topic.
I have a lot of great writers on my shelves I can pick from – anything from Stephen King to Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” which I know we’re all reading right now.
Anna: I was able to finish “Bird by Bird” this weekend. I had a night at a hotel all by myself.
Diane: That’s amazing.
Anna: I went to dinner and brought the book. It’s interesting. It has some good points even if you’re not writing fiction. I thought the section about asking for help was very good.
Tara: That’s going to be my evening reading in my bunk while I’m in Florida.
Diane: I was stuck the other day, and I’d just bought Ed Yong’s book, “The Immense World.” He’s a reporter for The Atlantic who won a Pulitzer for his coverage of COVID during the pandemic. He’s such a fantastic writer. I picked up his new book and read a page or two. It was just enough to spark some inspiration.
But I also get inspiration by walking away from the laptop and doing something physical – swimming, biking, walking. The shower is a good place. It’s refreshing and clears my mind. But, yeah, anytime I can disengage from the blank page helps me out.
You just have to get away from the desk.
The next time you’re staring at a blinking cursor, try stepping away and doing something else. It just may be the key to unlocking your door of inspiration. Or, reach out to us at Version A for some professional assistance.