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Don’t know what to write about? Write about your obsessions

In all the writing classes I teach, this writing lament comes up at least once from a student: “I don’t know where to start.”

Maybe they’ve started something and it didn’t pan out. The story didn’t hold their interest. Or they have this need gnawing at them to write, but they haven’t figured out what to write about.

Most of us have moments of writer’s freeze. Most of us get stuck at some point because we get into a mindset of being too orderly. But the birth of a story or poem or essay is a messy, disorderly act and imposing too much order in the beginning doesn’t work so well when you’re capturing the energy of a first draft.

It begins with letting go of your analytical mind. Ultimately every writer has to find their own way into that well. But identifying your obsessions can be a powerful way to figure out what to write about.

The beauty of writing about your obsessions is that you will fully engage, feel completely alive, and have energy to write to the end. The passionate force of your obsessions turns your writing into a transformative act.

So how do you tap these obsessions? One sure way to open the well of words and ideas is by simply writing. It always starts with moving our fingers on the keys or notebook. And in that act, our deepest fears, desires, and obsessions come to light. Try these ideas:

Writing prompts. Prompts create a structure and focusing point to get into a poem or story. They’ll help you gravitate towards your obsessions by tapping into the subconscious to find the stories waiting to be told. In Writing advice from a Tasmanian cave spider, see how writing prompts helped my blogging partner Carol write 18 new poems so far this year.

Free writing. Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within and other writing classics, wrote about doing writing practice. Shed your analytical brain in favor of your wild mind and your deepest passions will rise to the surface. Just putting your pen on a page and writing madly reveals the creative energy at your core. Start by setting a timer for 10 minutes and just writing. Goldberg often begins with prompts, including “I remember,” “I’m looking at,” and “I know.”

In short, here are the rules for writing practice.

  1. Keep your hand moving. This keeps the editor voice in your head at bay.
  2. Lose control. Don’t restrict anything about your writing. Let it be what it wants.
  3. Be specific. Instead of a car, write Cadillac. Instead of a drink, write lemonade.
  4. Don’t think. Don’t analyze anything.
  5. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar. The priority is to write without thinking.
  6. You are free to write the worst junk in the world. Remember it’s a draft, it’s practice.
  7. Go for the jugular. Nothing is off limits.

Once you’ve figured out the obsession that keeps appearing in your pages, seize it and go deep. It’s what you are meant to write about. Ultimately your obsession reveals a question that needs an answer and you will reveal that answer through your characters, sensory images and ideas, and action and reaction.

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