Write Your Heart Out

Sometimes writing feels a lot like trying to fill a bathtub with water using a flour sifter. With a blindfold on. Whilst someone smacks you repeatedly over the head with a fly swatter. It can be a horrible, agonizing experience. But, as Madonna so eloquently says, “There’s a certain satisfaction in a little bit of pain.” She may have been talking about sex, but it works for writing too.

In fact, sex works as a perfect metaphor for writing. It’s messy, emotional, tedious, unsure. It can destroy you if you aren’t careful who you share it with. Despite all of its perils, writing can bring ecstasies and pleasures that few things can rival.

Okay, this was supposed to be my spiritual Sunday post, but it took a little bit of a dirty turn. Sorry about that. Read on for some writing inspiration sprinkled with a few prompts and pointers.

“A bad novel is better than an unwritten novel, because a bad novel can be improved; an unwritten novel is defeat without a battle.” -Paul Johnson.

  • Write about a phone call. How do you know how the person you are talking to is feeling? How can you show this in your writing? What other senses can you bring into the experience?

Tip: Say your dialogue out loud as you reread it.

“Writers do not make up stories. They find them. They uncover them; they discover them.” -Stephen Koch

  • How did your character get his or her name? How does he or she feel about it? Why? How do other characters feel about the main character’s name?

Tip: Always keep a notebook and pen with you. You won’t remember it by the time you get home!

“Until you actually tell the story, the whole story, it will be nothing but smoke.” -Stephen Koch

  • Take an idyllic setting and write about something horrible happening there. Use the setting to contrast with your events and make them stand out.

Tip: Start with something that evokes emotion in you–a song, a scene in a movie, an image, an event. Use that item to inspire your writing.

“What’s so hard to grasp at first is that you can intuitively “know” your story long before you are in any position to tell it. The imaginative arousal that makes you begin working in the first place–the “throb”–is likely to reveal no more than a cryptic corner, a fragment of the story to come.” -Stephen Koch (Whew, that one was pretty sexual. It’s getting a little hot in here; I think I will go get my notebook)

Tip: Writing tips can destroy your writing. Listen with caution and trust yourself. Experiment and play, but don’t do something just because someone says that you should.

“Just as intuition tends to precede calculation, so story precedes plot. YOU CANNOT “PLOT” A STORY THAT YOU DO NOT KNOW.” -Stephen Koch (emphasis his, and so very very true!)

  • Write about a battle. It could be in warfare, between two people, internal…the options are limitless. Focus on the sensations that occur during the battle.

Tip: Ask a random person what their favorite book is. Read it. If you don’t like it, don’t quit reading, but do ask yourself why you don’t like it. If you like it, try to identify why. Analyze the novel.

“A mess on a piece of paper is suddenly pulled by unseen energy into lovely concentric arcs.” -Stephen Koch

  • Write about a recipe. How did your character come by it? What is it for? Is it for food, weapons, love, or something else? What is its significance? Is it written down, memorized, on a website, or somewhere else?

Tip: Write every day. Make this a non-negotiable.

On using setting to prompt a story: “Who lives here? Who wants to come here? Who wants to leave here? Why? What do these people want? Are they going to get it? If yes, how? If no, why?” -Stephen Koch

  • Write a short story for Frida Kahlo’s The Wounded Deer.

Tip: Write down everything that comes to mind. Learn shorthand if it helps. Don’t worry about filtering. Let it all come out. Dedicate a special notebook for this. You might be surprised at the things that take shape in your mind once you have emptied it.

“Not knowing how far to go, the writer goes nowhere. Lifelessness is not a form of elegance you should pursue.” -Stephen Koch

  • Write about something that no longer exists for your character.

Tip: Relaxing in front of the TV? Use this as an opportunity to study elements of storytelling. Take note of plot, pacing, tension, conflict, characterization, and setting.

“Finding the right form for your story is simply to realize the most natural way of telling the story. The test of whether or not a writer had divined the natural shape of his story is just this: After reading it, can you image it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right.” -Truman Capote

  • Write about embarrassment. What is it? Where does it come from? Is there a recipe for it?

Tip: Surround yourself with positive and influential writers. Seek out people to inspire you.

“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.” -James Baldwin

  • Someone is interviewing your main character. Who? Why? Where? What do they ask? How does your character feel about it?

Tip: Let go of perfection. It is unattainable.

“Your talent will go to waste unless it is sustained and strengthened by the nagging, jagged, elusive thing called obsession, that stone in the shoe of your being known as a calling, a vocation.” -Stephen Koch

  • Write about someone your main character misses.

Tip: When a line in a story or poem grabs you, jot it in your writing journal. Analyze it. Play with it.

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” -Ernest Hemingway

  • What place would your character never go? Why?

Tip: Create a ritual to rid yourself of negativity. As a writer you are going to encounter it–a negative review, a mean critique–and you need to develop a way to move on and keep writing. I print and burn such negative writing once a month over a bonfire and whisky.

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.” -Virginia Woolf

  • Turn on Pandora and write a short story for the first song that comes on.

Tip: Write your first draft without criticizing it. Don’t pause to analyze or revise. JUST WRITE.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” -Ernest Hemingway

  • Who are your character’s heroes? What does this reveal about him or her?

Tip: Write your heart out. Write until your brain quiets. Write through the whisperings of your soul. Write until you feel there is nothing left, and then write some more.