Finding Inspiration in Dreams

This morning I awoke from a night of unusual dreams – the kind of dreams that, upon waking, can’t really be described or explained.

These dreams were not chronological or rational. There weren’t realistic transitions – I was in one place doing one thing, then suddenly, magically I am in another place altogether and yet in my dream world it makes sense.

I awoke feeling inspired.

It’s like these dreams blossomed from the creative part of my brain and my writerly instincts are kicking in.

The first stories I ever wrote were similar to these kinds of dreams – they were adventure stories about new places that needed to be explored and getting lost at sea or deserted on a magical island. I was a kid when I wrote these stories.

I enjoy reading stories about made up worlds that are so in-depth you are able to believe they might actually exist. I admire J.K. Rowling for her ability to create such a detailed world in the Harry Potter series – maybe there really is magic among us but us “muggles” fail to see it. I love the concept that there are entire worlds that exist right under our noses, that the unusual phenomena that we find logical explanations for are really the doing of something bigger than ourselves.

In the back of my mind I’ve always thought about writing a children’s book or young adult novel with a premise like this, but I’d begun to think I’d lost that child-like imagination that was so vivid in my youth. I feared that I couldn’t write such a fantastical story as an adult.

underwater roomBut then, I dream about an underwater room hidden in a sprawling mansion that is filled creatures never seen in the real world, and I think maybe that child-like imagination is still there. It makes itself known in my subconscious, coming out in my dreams.

That dream inspired me to start writing a story, one that I probably would not have otherwise written.

Do your dreams inspire you to write?

If you haven’t got an idea, start a story anyway

As a writer, sometimes ideas come easy. Inspiration can strike while I’m in the shower, on the drive home from work, or while I’m reading. Ideas can take form from something someone says in passing conversation, the lyrics in a song, the words printed on a sign. But sometimes, our creative outlets are tapped. When you’re in a writing rut, nothing seems worth writing about.

It’s times like those, I find that I must write anyway.

William Campbell Gault says, “If you haven’t got an idea, start a story anyway. You can always throw it away, and maybe by the time you get to the fourth page you will have an idea, and you’ll only have to throw away the first three pages.”

writingSometimes the best thing I can do is write just to see where it takes me. I have to write outside my comfort zone, both literally and figuratively. Sometimes all it takes is changing my physical writing spot, like moving out to the patio to take in the sights, sounds and smells. Or ditching my laptop and taking a notebook to write from a coffee shop or a park bench – these are great places to eavesdrop on conversations and take notes!  A change of scenery and a change in the regular writing routine can be a simple trick to inspire something new.

But what happens when you get to the fourth page, or the tenth, and you still don’t have any ideas? We all have days when it seems no matter how much we write, or how hard we try, the writing just isn’t there.

And that’s okay. Not everything we write is publishable, sometimes it’s just practice.

Looking back in old backup documents, I recently found dozens of short pieces I had written over the years. I couldn’t  believe how many of them there were and it was fun looking back on them. And it was then, I realized, even if I never get to quit my day job to write full time, I can still call myself a writer because, after all, a writer writes. And I will always write.

What do you do when you’re stuck for ideas?

An Ode to Shitty First Drafts

We’ve all heard the quote from Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

What an empowering thing for any writer. How liberating to be reminded that when we sit down to write, our first draft is probably going to be awful, but that’s okay. It’s part of the process.

When I sat down a few weeks ago to write an assignment for a local newspaper, I was reminded of this quote. The blank document stared at me and every time I started to write a sentence, I deleted it or worse – stopped myself before I even put any words on the page. I was too focused on wanting it to sound good.

Finally, I said to myself (out loud) “Okay, this is going to be shitty, but I’m just going to do it.” It got a lot easier after that.

Once I gave myself permission to write badly, I was able to get out of my own way and just write. I simply had to remind myself that what I was writing didn’t have to be perfect. I had to tell myself that no one was going to see this draft but me, and that I just had to get the words down and I could figure out the order of them later.

Fortunately, writers have a lot to say about first drafts. Natalie Goldberg says, “If every time you sat down to write, you expected something great, writing would always be a great disappointment. Plus, that expectation would also keep you from writing.”

I can’t talk about first drafts without talking about Anne Lamott. She wrote a very helpful, very reassuring chapter on Shitty First Drafts in her book, Bird by Bird, my favorite book on writing which I wrote about here.

She reminds us that all writers write bad first drafts. She says, “All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” No one sits down to write and gets it right effortlessly on the first try. She says the only way she can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. I find the same is true for me, too.

Lamott insists that the first draft is where you let it all pour out onto the page, no matter how childish or silly or terrible it may seem. She says to just get it all down on paper because, “There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go – but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.”

The key is to not let that terribly written first draft stop you from going back to it and writing a second, and a third.

For me, the first draft is for figuring out what the story is really about, what story I’m really trying to tell. It’s about getting the ideas down, discovering who our characters are, their motives, and their flaws. Who are they and what do they have to say? Anne Lamott says, “Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t – and, in fact, you’re not supposed to – know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.”

I find that sometimes the story that comes out on paper is very different than the story I imagined I was sitting down to write. It’s easy to dream up an idea, to have a plot in mind, but it doesn’t always work out the way we imagine it would.

Jack Dann says, “For me, writing is exploration; and most of the time, I’m surprised where the journey.” So while first drafts can be a struggle, they can be surprising.

Check on my For Writers page to find other great books for writers and resources I have found helpful .

Books for Writers: Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

The first book on writing I ever owned is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I received it as a Christmas gift from my aunt when I was in high school and dreaming of becoming a bestselling novelist. I read the title and thought, “Why is she giving me a book about birds??” But when I read the full title I noticed it said: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

It’s a book I didn’t fully appreciate for a long time until I finally sat down and really read it. I have since re-read it many times and often pick it up to reference particularly helpful passages. I find that I discover something new each time I read it. Now, my copy of Bird by Bird is well worn. It has so many markings and underlined passages I couldn’t even begin to share them all.

Lamott starts by reminding us that, “Good writing is about telling the truth.” She says, “The good news is that some days it feels like you just have to keep getting out of your own way so that whatever it is that wants to be written can use you to write it.”

Lamott offers this bit of advice about getting started:  write about your childhood. One of the first times I read this book, I took Lamott’s advice and I recently came across those writings I had written years ago, reflections about my turbulent years in junior high, a recounting of my awful first kiss. I was grateful to find these pieces, grateful that I had recorded these parts of my life that I’d much rather forget because let’s face it, it makes great material!

Lamott writes about the writing life, and issues like writer’s block, and perfectionism. She offers ways to silence your inner critic (see the chapter on Radio Station KFKD.) She writes frankly and honestly about getting published (and the myth of publication) about which she says, “…if what you have in mind is fame and fortune, publication is going to drive you crazy. If you’re lucky, you will get a few reviews, some good, some bad, some indifferent.” She reminds us the real payoff is the writing itself.

She offers advice, like writing short assignments, carrying around index cards, and one of my favorite bits of writing advice, shitty first drafts (More on that in a future post!)

She writes about character, – it takes time for you to know them –  plot, – Plot grows out of character – and dialogue, – good dialogue gives us the sense that we are eavesdropping.

So much of that advice, so much of what I have learned about writing the hard way, is all written here in this book.

Anne Lamott is funny and honest, sharing her own triumphs, tribulations and humiliations. Reading about her experiences reminds me that I’m not alone in those moments when I sit at my computer staring at the cursor blinking back at me, feeling as though I should just give up on writing altogether. Her stories have stayed with me, and have offered solace and humor in my own writing tribulations.

If you are a writer this book is an absolute must-have.

Preparing for NaNoWriMo

There are only a few days left until National Novel Writing Month officially begins for 2012, leaving me with not much time to finish preparing and outlining!

I was reflecting on last year’s NaNo, and here are a few things I learned in the process:

1. I am capable of getting out of bed  early every day to write. I am not a morning person. But it’s what I need to do to make the time to write.

NaNoWriMoThough I am a night owl, I had some of my most productive writing sessions before the sun came up. Evenings, for me, are full of distractions and temptations I can’t resist (read: prime time television) If I want to make writing part of my day, mornings may be my answer. And coffee of course.

TIP: Find out what time of day you are most productive and make that your writing time.

2. A little brainstorming goes a long way. I never thought taking ten minutes to think about my writing could be all that beneficial. But several times during NaNo 2011, I picked up a pen and paper on my lunch break and just started writing my next scene. In just a few minutes time, I gave myself a jump start on what I could work on writing that night when I had more than ten minutes. It helped me overcome that glaze of starting at the cursor, trying to figure out where to begin.

TIP: If don’t already carry a notebook with you wherever you go, make sure you do in the month of November. Don’t be caught unprepared if you find yourself with sudden inspiration. Take a few moments of your day to jot notes about what you intend to work on that day, plan your next scene or your next chapter. A few moments of preparation is worth pages of writing.

3. Valuable writing time can be wasted in hitting the snooze button and the few moments it takes to make a cup of coffee, turn on the laptop and get settled in my writing spot. I needed to give myself a few extra moments so that these seemingly quick tasks didn’t cut into my writing time.

TIP: Do everything you can to prepare, so that once you sit down to write, you don’t need to get up for at least an hour. Have everything you need within reach including a beverage or snack, a pen or pencil and a notebook nearby to take notes –  if you suddenly decide what you want to happen in the next chapter, write it down to go back to later, then keep writing.

What have you learned from past NaNoWriMo’s? What tips do you find useful to help you make the most of your writing time?