Welcome to So Relatable, a bi-weekly newsletter featuring conversations about the creative process, suggestions for nourishing yourself, and inspiring links.
Heads up: this week’s Relatable Reads are curated by Rebecca Hass of Creative Wellness Letters, a newsletter that helps ambitious artists find the energy to focus on their work. She put together some great links for y’all, so keep reading!
If you’ve ever attended a literary event, you know people in the audience inevitably ask the same three things: What is your writing process like?, Where do you get your ideas?, and This is more of a comment than a question.
Today I want to talk about how I come up with new ideas, mostly because it’s been a busy two weeks (three cheers for being fully vaccinated!) and I had no idea what to write about. A brief disclaimer: these methods are not super fancy or especially unique, but they work for me. I hope they spark something for you!
1. Keep a list, folder, or file.
I’m an avid user of Gmail’s label system (color-coded, of course) and I have one titled “Brilliant Ideas.” Ambitious? Perhaps. But art requires a bit of bravado. Whenever I come across a weird news article, a sentence I really like, an interesting image, etc. I email it to myself, file it away, and forget about it. Later, when I’m sitting at my desk with an uncooperative imagination, I open that file and click on whatever catches my eye. I did this just now, and the subject line that won was “ghost passengers in taxis after tsunami” with a link to this article, which I emailed to myself in 2016. Good thing the best ideas don’t have a shelf life.
2. Attend readings, lectures, and talks.
My favorite font of inspiration is other people, preferably ones who are completely different from me. For example, I recently attended a virtual craft seminar with Melissa Goodrich, organized by my friend Cassie. It was focused on flash fiction, which I don’t write very often, but a change is as good as a rest. The talk included examples of flash and time to experiment with our own, the Zoom falling quiet as attendees stared into space/typed feverishly. Everything I wrote was absolutely terrible, of course, but it was a nice way to give my brain a break from my current draft and resulted in a few lines with potential. (These talks will be held monthly; DM Cassie if you want to attend the next one!)
3. Leave your phone at home.
I walk my dog twice a day, for about 30 minutes a pop. (We don’t go far - he’s old and slow.) I almost always leave my phone at home during these outings, and it’s such a relief to be untethered. My mind wanders. My thoughts drift. I notice things, like flowers and birds and neighbors. I’m not tempted to scroll Twitter while my dog rolls in the grass or plug in a podcast to pass the time. Ideas need space to surface, and my daily walks are one of the few times I can carve some out.
4. Read the local news.
Like any good liberal, I have a subscription to the New York Times and am a sustaining member of my local NPR station. But what I really love is local news. The city council members who stab each other in the back! The beloved restaurant that mysteriously goes out of business in the middle of the night! The unidentified creature that washes up on the beach! The first professional female brewer in the state! The venus flytrap, which is native to my city! If you can’t think of any good ideas, look down. The best ones are often right in front of you.
5. Embrace self-imposed limits.
For many years, mostly in grad school, I wrote short stories. Coming up with ideas can be difficult, especially when you have a workshop deadline, but I had a trick: all my stories took place in the same small town on Long Island, based loosely on the place where I grew up. The stories I wrote were very different—one was about a neighborhood of swingers, one was about a man living in a widow’s walls, one was about the mall—but they all shared a place of origin, and wondering, “What about Long Island?” was so much easier than wondering, “What about literally anything?”
6. Mine the past - yours, and theirs.
I write fiction almost exclusively, but in every piece I write there are Easter eggs. It might be a phrase my grandmother said, a restaurant I visited once, a feeling I had when I was twelve. It might be a story a friend told me about her brother’s best friend’s cousin, or the murky, gossiped-about reasons for a long-standing estrangement. These moments of reality are a great place to start, especially because you’re not tied to them. In other words: tell the truth, but make it better.
7. Ask questions and find answers.
This has been the main strategy for my current work-in-progress, a novel about love, late stage capitalism, and insurance fraud. I’ve never committed a felony, though I’m sure the number of times I’ve Googled “How to commit insurance fraud” has landed me on many a watch list. I would say 90% of my ideas come about because I had a question, and writing was the best way to answer it. “What if?” is the start. “And then?” is the story.
Those words—“What if?”—are the most powerful ones a writer can wield, a key that opens every door, a query that requires curiosity, imagination, bravery. And isn’t that the whole point? Generating ideas isn’t just about telling a good story or making cool art. It’s about deepening your understanding of the world and yourself. If you’re feeling stuck or stagnant, if you don’t know what to write or where to go next, remember: the idea is just the door. Walking through it is the work and the reward.
Snack of the Week
I have mixed feelings about the speed at which we ditched the mask mandate and social distancing guidelines (like WOW, give a girl a few days to prepare, would you?) I do not, however, have mixed feelings about these dessert shooters I shared during a delicious outdoor dinner to celebrate a dear colleague’s big promotion and bigger move. The lineup included creme brûlée, dark chocolate mousse, carrot cake, chocolate peanut butter pie, and cheesecake. Tiny spoons, huge mood. A true delight and the perfect send-off.
Rebecca’s Relatable Reads
Hi, I'm Rebecca, writer of Creative Wellness Letters, a bi-monthly dose of motivation and encouragement to help you self-compassionately support your creative practice and productivity from a foundation of wellness. I'm also a creative coach, pianist/composer of Brazilian music, and lover of extremely dark chocolate.
I feel I should mention that my favorite snack lately is the Spicy Chakri Mix from Trader Joe's, but taken to the next level—I like to mix in a little toasted coconut, a little bit of cashew butter, and sometimes even a few cacao nibs!
Untangling Anxious Signals and Creative Impulses, New Music Box. For those of us who do creative work and have anxiety (hi!), this video is an interesting perspective on the positive and negative aspects of anxiety on creative work, and how they can overlap. 💛
I’m Not Languishing, I’m Dormant, Austin Kleon. Austin’s response to the Adam Grant article on pandemic languishing that we’ve probably all read by now is perfect. I always love a creativity-meets-gardening analogy! 🌱
How to Clear Mental Space in Your Brain, Alexandra Franzen. Some great suggestions for reducing mental input. Let’s make more space for cool ideas to come in! 🧠
Street Artist Transforms Cracks in Pavement To Turn Eyesores into Gorgeous Mosaics, My Modern Met. I’m so inspired by random acts of beauty like these! 🎨
Want to treat me to a ☕️ and support So Relatable? 💛 💃 🙌
Venmo: @Christine-Hennessey or PayPal Me.
Can’t afford a contribution? That’s okay! You can also click the ♡ below, forward it to a friend, or share the link on social media. Every little bit helps!
(At the end of 2021, I plan to donate 20% of anything I earn from this newsletter. Thanks for your support!)