“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and open a vein.” – Red Smith
Writing can be difficult, especially knowing what to write. I’ve been reading several blogs lately about ideas and the constant influx of them when you don’t need them, their apparent extinction when you do, and writing prompts to get them going. After all, to steal a concept from Red Smith, we are going to be spilling our life out onto the blank page for all to see.
Everyone has seen the daily writing prompts that give you a vague scenario with which to run. I’ve never been a fan of those. To me, it feels like I am writing a story for someone else, rather than for me. I’ll use one in a pinch, but I don’t feel those stories have been as successful for me.
I prefer using words to spark my writing, single words or phrases taken out of context. My method is a variation of Ray Bradbury’s technique. My understanding is that Ray Bradbury would sometimes have nothing but a title. He would then sit down and write about that title as fast as he could, after all, he was writing on a coin-operated typewriter. One of my favorite Ray Bradbury stories “There Will Come Soft Rains” actually comes from a poem by Sara Teasdale of the same title. The poem itself was a definite inspiration for Bradbury, as both deal with a post-apocalyptic setting.
What I normally do is pick up a book of poetry and flip to a random page. My favorites for this are Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, Sylvia Plath, and others of that sort. Pick someone who has a similar feeling of story to the ones you want to write. I use these because my work tends to be a little bit dark sometimes, as was theirs. From that random page, I pick a word or phrase that strikes me. I’ll know when I see it.
As I wrote this, I found a random Plath poem. “On Looking into the Eyes of a Demon Lover.” Sounds promising.
Here are two pupils
whose moons of black
transform to cripples
all who look:
Right away, “moons of black” strikes me. There has been a lot of mythology based on lunar cycles. There are definite possibilities there. Werewolf stories are a bit cliche, so you might think past that first thought, but ancient cultures hold a lot of rich information, as well as man’s inherent fear of the dark. The appearance of stars moons and planets has been an obsession of mankind’s throughout history.
each lovely lady
who peers inside
take on the body
of a toad.
Within these mirrors
the world inverts:
the fond admirer’s
“Within these mirrors” sounds great Mirrors are a mysterious thing. You look at them, and they look right back at you. Mirrors could be used literally, or as a metaphor. It opens a lot of possibilities about other realms, other words, what a person sees about themselves when they look into a mirror, and who knows what your reflection is doing when you are AREN’T looking at it. Haven’t you ever felt that if you could just look quickly enough, you would catch that person in the mirror NOT mimicking your every move?
turn back to injure
the thrusting hand
and inflame to danger
the scarlet wound.
I sought my image
in the scorching glass,
for what fire could damage
a witch’s face?
So I stared in that furnace
where beauties char
but found radiant Venus
Three strike me out of this last grouping. “the scarlet wound,” “what fire could damage,” and “where beauties char.” The scarlet wound brings up images of Hawthorne, but if you look past it, out of context and think of what the color scarlet makes you feel, and how many different types of wounds there really are, you can probably get a nice short story out of it.
The other two deal with another inherent fear of humanity. We rely on fire for our survival, but we have never learned to control it. It’s like a wandering spirit. We can try to contain it, but we still end up burning our houses down. It goes where it is going to go, despite our persistent urgings to the contrary. There are several metaphorical meanings of fire, as well as Hell itself. There are bound to be ideas in there.
My next step would be to type those words at the top of the page. I’ll develop a small, vague premise. For example: A person at the end of their life reflects on their past sins and the unknown fate of their soul. I am getting that from “What Fire Could Damage” and “Where Beauties Char.”
If you are saying that isn’t a very complex idea, you are right. I’m a seat of the pants writer. I have no idea what this story will be about, who will be in it, or how it will end. That is the beauty of it.
I won’t know till I ask the character. Is the person is young, old, male, female…alien? What has this person done? There are lots of levels of sin. What is this person dying of? Is the person ultimately saved, or condemned to the fires they feared? Do they die, or do they live? It will depend on who I find.
I could write that story four or five times and have them be totally different.You could get four or five premises out of the same quote by making different interpretations, and I latched on to five phrases in the poem. This one poem could provide me with a dozen possible stories. The key for me is looking at the phrases out of context and determining what they mean to me.
Best of all, these are my veins, not another person’s. I am just using Plath’s words to help me find them. (My suicide analogy paired with a poem from Plath, who committed suicide, was not intentional and not meant to offend anyone.)
Go get a book off your shelf and find yourself a story. Poems are best for me because poets have to carefully choose every word. If you don’t have poetry books, you can find entire poems online.
If it works for you, you’ll have another tool in your writer’s toolbox to fight writer’s block. Good luck and keep writing.