Wrestling with Stories, Ideas, and Mental Burnout
That made sense to me in the light of my own experience - we all get that drained sense at one time or another - but I kept wondering why. What is it about getting away that helps? Why does seeing more on the same subject spark new ideas? The greater a grasp writers have of this issue, the more efficiently they might find a way out of the problem when it happens.
Then I saw some connections, literally. For a moment, consider the difference between an idea and a story. The former is a notion or concept that grabs your attention and interest. A story is when you take the initial idea and develop it - consider the questions it raises, understand its implications, find one facet (a story angle) on which you will focus, decide on what types of information and resources you'll need to explore the angle, and develop an expression of what is now a story that you can pitch to an editor. Development depends as much on the specific writer as it does on the idea. That's why two writers can take an identical angle on the same story and still come up with two entirely different treatments.
When writers feel that they are coming up dry, it's generally not in the story development. There you can run into barriers or difficulties - where to get this statistic or who might offer a cogent view and expertise on a specific area of knowledge. You're not going to fall into that desperate emptiness of feeling that you're out of ideas and nothing new comes to mind.
That is a problem whether you're doing editorial or corporate work, because in both cases you need to tell the story, and to do that you need the initial idea. Either you face economic problems by not being able to generate enough work, or your craft suffers as everything you write starts sounding the same.
Generally I've found that one of two things spark an idea - either a piece of information new to you raises questions or captures your interest, or you see a new potential relationship among things you knew before. But there's something common here. An "idea" for a writer seems to be an incomplete new path of association. The new information starts a chain of associations or a new developing chain suddenly links at least two things for the writer that weren't connected in that way before. You start with certain groups of information, and suddenly you wonder what the nature of something is, or what ramifications it has on the way people normally perceive or understand the world. A previously unconsidered new set of associations between information you may have had before suddenly presents a brand new picture.
That gives a way of looking at going dry. Nothing seems new because you are not experiencing a new set of associations - learning, if you will. You're effectively in a literal intellectual and emotional rut. Your wheels are stuck in those tracks and you keep running along the same thoughts and feelings. No wonder you can't get a new idea; every time you want to take a turn, it's as though you're on one of those kid's amusement rights where a fake antique car goes around a track guided by a rail. Steer as much as you want, you won't go in a new direction.
The reason it's necessary to understand this is practical. No technique for creating new associations will work every time, and if you don't understand what you're trying to do, one day you'll find that method doesn't give you the jolt you needed. To jump the tracks, you need new ideas, and if I'm right about the nature of ideas for writers, this could happen either on the side of what you know or on the side of how you associate things. From that, you can guess at some things that might help:
- take a course (an area that might help you write or something completely different from what you've done before)
- read a book (learn about a topic you know little about, gain exposure to good writing, read deeply about something where you have surface knowledge)
- get away from your desk and go someplace different (a "mini-vacation" or maybe the Starbucks phenomenon of working elsewhere)
- go to a source about a topic you cover where you're likely to learn new information or associations (attend a trade show, do a background interview of an expert)
- look differently at what you do know (draw as many connections as you can between things you have never looked at as related, ask new questions about topics you've covered, assume that something you think you know is wrong and see what logical conclusions that would create)
- take a topic and consider what it would be like in another place or time or with a different set of people or circumstances