Hello out there, writing chums! C’mon now, no need to be modest, we all write something, even if it’s only a letter or e-mail to an old friend, or the weekly grocery or chore list. And I believe I’ve hit upon a list of suggestions which may help you continue a halted piece of writing as they have me (I shy away from the word “rules,” as it makes me halt and become bogged-down in turn, and unable to compose sentences). What I’m saying (to borrow two terms from grammar) is that these suggestions are not prescriptive like rules (that is, they don’t dictate to you what you should do); rather they are descriptive (they are about what someone before you actually has done, namely I, to stir up my writing abilities). By altering them only slightly to suit yourself, you may be able to use them for a critical or scholarly paper, a list of chores (we all tend to be able to remember 9-10 things in a row, but you may have to prod your memory for the other ones), a short story, novel, or even perhaps a poem.
Assuming that you have at least a snippet of your text already in mind, one of the things most writers of note will mention to you is to “outline” your ideas so that you can continue with the rest of your plan. Obviously, you can do this, but for some of us the building of an outline deadens the process of dreaming up new ideas quickly and jotting them down before they vanish; I number myself among these people. The outline-devotees at this point will go on from jotting down things to prioritizing them with A.B.C. and 1.2.3. and I am not at all suggesting that this is a bad method; I am simply saying it stifles my own creative abilities. It is still related to what I do with my own method, which is to jot down item after item after item all over the top, bottom, sides, and in the margins of a piece of paper, and then mark them out one by one as I write them into my manuscript. I do sometimes combine them slightly with the outline form by looking over them and prioritizing them with 1.2.3. or underlining the key sections. The main advantage of this method (it’s perhaps too chaotic to call a “system”) is that if I am working with ideas which appear in a heavy cloud, again it allows me to get it all down before it vanishes. Then I just abstract ideas, or images, or lines of dialogue from the cloud and use them in the work.
Another method of coping with a piece which won’t “move forward” is to re-read it, either the entire piece, whether long or short, just to see what you haven’t yet covered, or perhaps the last 10-20 pages before it breaks off, to get an idea of where you want to go next with the characterizations, or if it’s a grocery list to see what spices (for example) you’re out of that’re needed with the other items you’ve written down, or if the work is a letter to remember what scandals you haven’t yet told your absent friend about. Here’s a place where the method doesn’t work as well as the outline method for those writing papers, because of course they already have a set course to cover, and will only be surprised if something else comes up while they are writing, as of course it may do (a new bit of research may turn up while they are composing on the basis of older research, etc.). In that case, even the outliners may need to rewrite a section before final revision time (and most kinds of writing occasionally or often require final revisions, depending on what they are and how lengthy).
A third method, one not unrelated to the second, except for the fact that it allows you to sort of “sneak up” on the piece of work you’re doing, as if it were a shy bird or butterfly you were attempting to photograph and might scare away, is to go back to the beginning for proofreading. This is different from method 2 because the original intent and focus of the exercise is on the writing as writing and not on “plot” or “content.” In the letter or e-mail, you may have chosen to compose a previous part with a flourish of writerly skills which drove a related idea you meant to express straight out of your head, and so quizzical are the potentates of memory that rereading your original flippancy or splash of egocentricity may call the hidden rulers of memory forth again to articulate the lost idea. In the list, you may have chosen a luxury item instead of something you need more, and re-reading the luxury item on your list may perhaps cause you to be forced to decide between the two or possibly to write them both down as things which for some reason you feel you need. This method may work for the scholarly writing exercise too, because we all love to show off our writing skills a little (just note some of my odd and peculiar metaphors above, which you may feel are nothing to show off about!), and we may have forgotten or overlooked a toad lurking beneath the blossom, as it were. But if you’re lucky, sometimes a short snippet of a continuation may occur almost magically in your mind from rereading the previous phrasing and because you have edited the previous portions up to the break.
If none of this works, leave the piece to mature a little further before tinkering with it again. It may simply need time to become a sort of magnet for other ideas, images and plot lines (and here I’m mixing metaphors, as “magnets” are not usually “tinkered” with, nor do they conventionally “mature”). With the list, if that is what you are composing, you can always leave it on the counter for others to add their suggestions and comments, knowing full well that at the end of the day (at least with this one sort of writing) if your six year old writes “more candy” on the list, or if your roommate writes “your obsessive-compulsive lists make me barf,” you can ignore, delete, or rewrite the list to suit yourself. Now if only it were that easy for scholars, novelists, and poets!
What are your tricks and traps for catching and holding fleeting inspiration and getting it to work for you? Why not share with other writers here just what helps you get writing when your manuscript refuses to go forward?