Overcoming Writer’s Block: Narrow To Generate Ideas


Heuristic: Focus on concrete categories when generating ideas.

The brain is a stupid lump of fat. I sometimes say to it, “Brain, what ought I write about today?” and Brain goes, “Dunno, boss,” and then shuts off — starts humming some melody and wondering if anything has been posted to The n-Category Cafe lately. It’s like I’m on vacation in the Sahara, and Brain is driving, and I get out of the car to pee, and then Brain just takes off, leaving me twice deserted.

Sometimes I wait, thinking that Brain is running some sort of process, and if I just leave it alone for a bit, it will come up with something — as if Brain is running OS X and after I ask him for an idea that infernal loading beach ball pops up.

Except when I come back to Brain five or ten minutes later and go, “Hey, come up with any ideas yet?” Brain says, “Ideas? What ideas?” and looks at me sorta confused, like he’s not sure how he got here or why.

Or sometimes I sit and try to “let the thoughts flow.” Except instead of flowing its more along the lines of me switching on the faucet and hearing this terrible, mechanical screeching noise, followed by rust colored sludge — certainly nothing fit for human consumption, not drinkable or readable. This usually triggers a reflection on the fact that brains are just stupid lumps of fat, followed by despair and deletion.

That’s the beautiful reality of the creative process.

The Power of Narrowing

Given that any point in time, a person probably has at least one thing worth saying somewhere in their head, the trouble is finding it. That’s the issue with just asking Brain, “What should I write about?” Brain can’t find anything without a clue.

There is a passage from the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where a student tries to write an essay on The United States. It comes due. The student misses the deadline. “Couldn’t think of anything,” she explains. The narrator tells her, “Narrow it down to the front of one building on the main street of Bozeman. The Opera House. Start with the upper left-hand brick.”

I reinvented this technique a few minutes ago when I realized that it’s a whole lot easier to write about a category like “thumbs” than a category like “anything.” The restriction, in this case, makes the problem easier.

But what if you don’t have any category at all — not even thumbs? Try generating one at random, or generate two and ask “What do these have in common?”

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