Don’t Decide What to Write About — Let Your Imagination Decide For You

Sometimes creativity can save your life. Sort of.

A few months ago, I accidentally started writing a novel.

Wait, wait, hold on. Did you read that right? How do you “accidentally” start writing a novel?

It’s simple, really. You sit down in front of whatever tool or device you use to write and despite the fact that you’re already working on a million different things you just start writing this journal entry from a character you’re mildly familiar with but never planned on using in an actual story.

And you plan on just writing your random thing for an hour or so and then shutting it down and probably never looking at it again.

Ha. You’re hilarious. You think you can forget about it but you CAN’T.

So the next day you go to work on a different book and you find yourself thinking about that random thing you started writing yesterday. And you wonder what would happen if you just … spent a little more time on it. Not much. Just another hour. That’s it. No big deal.

But one hour turns into two and you repeat the same thought process the next day and all of a sudden it’s July and you’re almost done with a 100,000-word novel that has broken you and somehow put you back together again and, well. Oops.

Even though I haven’t been working on this story long, it has been one of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences of my writing life. And it all started because I was having a hard time “deciding” what to write about, and just started writing the first thing that came to mind.

Far too few of us spend enough time practicing the art of “not stressing about whether or not what we’re writing about is good.” We’re worried about so much before we even start writing — is it a good idea? Has it been done before? Will anyone want to publish it? Will it make me millions of dollars so I can pay off my debt and buy an island and never have to see another human ever again?

Maybe sometimes writing isn’t about getting everything “right” all the time. Maybe sometimes it has to be about getting something written.

One of the most valuable writing exercises I was ever taught in my creative writing classes was “stream of consciousness” writing. That’s when you force yourself to sit down and start writing the first thing that comes into your head. You’re not allowed to think about it our outline it, you just have to start writing it.

Sometimes we get so caught up in trying to figure out what to write about that we forget we can just sit down, open a blank document, and start telling whatever story we want no matter how “bad” it might be. When you don’t let yourself overthink it, sometimes you end up writing things that are actually … kind of … good?

And how do you do that? You trust your imagination to take the thoughts and ideas and other things in your brain and turn it into a story.

No outlining. No worrying. No second-guessing. Just writing.

Don’t tell me this — being able to sit down and write whatever comes into your head without truly thinking about it — is some kind of skill. It isn’t, not by itself. It is, in fact, a product of growing up in a culture that focuses way too much on getting things “right” and not enough on getting stories told.

When you were little you didn’t second-guess yourself before you started telling someone next to you a story. You just started telling it like it was your job. No one taught you to do that — at that point, you had spent your life surrounded by stories in some form or another and it just naturally occurred to you that you could tell a story about anything you wanted any time you wanted to.

You did the same thing with whatever you may have used to play “make-believe.” (For me it was Barbies, Beanie Babies, and dress-up — the ’90s were great and I dare you to try to convince me otherwise). Your brain just magically knew how to come up with a story idea in five seconds and you improvised until you got bored.

You weren’t some kind of storytelling prodigy. You were a kid with a developing brain who was just learning how to imagine the world abstractly and that’s AMAZING.

How do you re-learn the art of trusting your imagination when you’ve spent so long being trained how to contain it in a box? You sit down and start writing the most off the rails story you have ever written. You go all in. You GO FOR IT. You write an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians on steroids. You force yourself to write without boundaries in the safety and comfort of your own private space and you just see where it ends up.

This is how my current work in progress began. I “accidentally” got hooked on a story that started out as me just messing around with a blank page when I wasn’t in a good mindset to work on anything else. I gave myself permission to write something completely unlike anything I had let myself write before and oops it turned into a book and now I’m stuck with it forever yay!

Obviously just because this strategy has worked for me many times does not mean it will work for everyone. I have to insert this disclaimer into my posts now so people stop attacking me for “giving bad writing advice” (which it isn’t). I’m simply telling you a story about how I write when I start to feel afraid or self-conscious. Maybe this might help you too. Maybe you have a different strategy you’ve found effective. Whatever works for you is absolutely wonderful.

Just don’t forget to let your imagination out of the box to run around and burn off some energy every once in a while. You never know — you might accidentally end up writing a book.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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