July 27, 2021
by Tina Jenkins Bell
Ophelia Chambliss, artist
I recently had the opportunity to talk to a group of writers during a “Coffee and Conversation” program at Write On Door County in Fish Creek, Wisconsin. The conversation included important questions such as, where do you get your inspiration for writing? and. what’s a good way to begin? One person said she could write about real circumstances all day long but creating fiction seemed to immobilize her. I asked fellow writers to share their own inspirations and strategies.
Author Lucille Freeman said, “For me, it’s like asking a bird what inspires you to fly. It’s part of what and who I am. I can’t help myself.”
“Writing is like breathing,” said screenwriter and Alverne Ball, author of Across the Tracks. “If I’m not doing it, I’m not alive.”
Lydia Barnes, author of The 107th Street Murder said, “Writing is what keeps the spirits of my past quiet.”
Short story writer Brenda Robinson said, "My characters haunt me until I tell their story. I get no rest until I start writing. They have big mouths."
What my writer friends shared with me made perfect sense. Still, I wanted additional concrete advice to offer new writers and also for those who had hit that proverbial wall we call writer’s block, so I did more research and combined what I learned with my friends' advice and here is a collection of strategies for jumpstarting your writing.
1. Write in the morning. “I’m very, very smart in the morning, and everything is clear," Toni Morrison once said. "By noon, it’s over. As the day wears on, I get dumber and dumber. That used to be my habit. I thought I did it because I had small children and I wanted to write before they got up. But then when they grew, I was still doing it and still preferring it.”
2. Write what you know, what you don’t know, or what you yearn to know, suggested Sandra Jackson Opoku, author of The River Where Blood Was Born and Hot Johnny and All the Women Who Loved Him. Sandra is currently working on a historical fiction novel, Black Rice, which relies on a good deal of research. Research, I would add, can be the very thing that inspires ideas and story.
3. Return to family values, stories,and histories. Heather “Byrd” Roberts, a poet, spoken word artist, and performer, said her work is fed by her forebearers. “I am inspired by the women who came before me, who paved the way for me to be a trailblazer.”
4. Write first, edit later. Trying to edit while writing is like bicycling in circles. You’ll never get anywhere, which is discouraging. Give yourself permission to write that 'shitty first draft' Ann Lamott talked about. Great stories and prose often spring from these drafts as long as you work your process, meaning write, rewrite, workshop, edit and if you must, repeat.
5. Embrace the shitty first draft as a literary stimulant, jumpstarter or Vitamin B12. It does not matter if your first draft is the length of a novella or looks like it’s ready to submit. I assure you it needs more attention. The first draft oils the brain, sources your imagination and possibly provides a glimpse into structure. That’s it!
6. Capture inspiration on the first go-round. Have you ever had a story idea disappear, even after you silently repeated it throughout the day, only to have it evaporate when something else gets your attention, like my nails look really bad right now. Or, was it peanut butter I needed to add to the grocery list? To hold onto story ideas, dialog, scenery or movements Barnes, a confessed night writer, keeps steno pads near her bed, in her car and in various other places around her house. She quickly jots down ideas to develop later.
7. Utilize dreams, eavesdrop on conversations, observe people. Sometimes dreams are nonsensical; other times they form the foundation for classics and best sellers, like Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Deep End of the Ocean by Jacqueline Mitchard. Don’t discount your dreams. Follow Barnes’s advice and put a journal or steno pad by your bed and write it down.
8. Utilize the 10-minute spurt. While pursuing an MFA at Columbia College I was given short periods to write. At first I was intimidated because I didn’t believe 10 minutes was enough to formulate a story. I was wrong. In 10 minutes you can flesh out the foundation of a short story or chapter of a novel. You can write dialog for a play. You can develop a series of scenes. You can get a lot done, which is why I suggest breaking into your day with a ten-minute session of writing. If 10 minutes turns into something longer, great. But a 10-minute writing session is a great jumpstarter because it doesn’t seem like an overwhelming commitment.
9. Finish what you start. According to Alverne Ball, Joe Meno, author of Marvel and Wonder, once said, when asked what the difference between Joe and the next writer was, Joe said, “I finish.” Enough said. Once you start writing complete it, work your writing process, workshop or utilize friends or a writing community for feedback and submit. Then start all over again.
10. Be open to inspiration but not beholden to it. According to Jackson Opoku writers don’t always have the luxury of waiting for inspiration. “I would tell my students to be open to inspiration but not beholden to it…(Writing) is like a muscle; in order to use it effectively, you must exercise it regularly. Every day I sit down to the laptop, I open it up, I call up a file. I continue what I wrote the day before or face the blank screen to conjure up something new.”
Tina Jenkins Bell is a published fiction writer, playwright, literary activist, and President Emeritus and cofounder of For Love of Writing (FLOW). Bell’s short fiction has been widely published in journals and anthologies including: “To the Moon and Back,” which appeared in Hypertext Journal and was nominated for an Illinois Arts Council award; her mini-memoir, “Devil’s Alley,” Us Against Alzheimer’s anthology; “Looking for the Good Boy, Yummy,” They Said anthology; “The Last Supper,” Revise the Psalm: Work Celebrating the Writing of Gwendolyn Brooks. Bell is currently working on her second novel, Family Legacies.
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