I’ve been to a lot of readings: poetry, fiction, memoir, etc. Seems like no matter what, if there’s a Q & A portion of the reading, someone will ask, “Where do you get your ideas?”
I understand why this always comes up. It comes up because no matter how imaginative we are, when we sit down to write, we are facing the blank page. Or the blank screen. Then, if you’re me, the ideas you’ve had about what to write fly out of your head and you stare at the page in despair. This is why I keep lists of things to write about.
Full disclosure: sometimes quotations that are supposed to inspire me instead make me gnash my teeth and wish I never, ever, had to hear them again. This is especially true when the words come on a poster with flowers or a sunset or a beach or a little innocent child. I’m talking about stuff like this:
When you come to a roadblock, take a detour.
Bonus grumpy points if the quotation is attributed to someone who never, ever, said or wrote it: Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Mother Theresa, or Mark Twain. These people had better things to do than to sit around thinking up pithy quotes about “fall down 9 times, get up 10.”
Now that I’m done ranting, I want to share a few things that inspire me. I hope they don’t make you want to kick a puppy* or start drinking at noon.
Prompt writing is a form of automatic writing, a technique that was popularized by the Surrealist art movement. In prompt writing you begin by writing down a word or phrase (e.g., “I remember”) and then continue writing whatever pops into your head at that moment. The idea is to keep your hand moving. If you hit a wall and can’t think of anything else, you can repeat the phrase and then keep going. Natalie Goldberg describes this process in more detail in her book Writing Down the Bones. She suggests setting a timer and committing to keep writing until the timer goes off, no matter what. No need to worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar– just go.
Like a lot of people, I usually start the new year with the intention to better myself in some way — lose weight, exercise more, eat better, read Dante in the original language*, etc. This year I’m taking a different approach.
My new year’s resolution is to practice self-compassion. Kristin Neff has been studying (and promoting) self-compassion for several years. Her TED talk is a good place to start if you want to learn more about it. In a nutshell, self-compassion is about offering kindness to yourself– the same kindness that you would extend to someone you love. If someone you love made a mistake, would you say “That was a really dumb thing to do! How could you be so careless?” Nope. You’d say, “I see that you made a mistake but that’s okay. You’ll do better next time.” So the next time you make a mistake, instead of saying mean things to yourself, treat yourself kindly.