Mining Your Life for Ideas

From Writing That Gets Noticed by Estelle Erasmus

Posted 8/15/23

As you start to walk on the way, the way appears. —Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi

I have had many fallow periods in my life where the creativity just wouldn't come. After the birth of my daughter, I struggled to write anything. And how could I? I'd put all my energy and motivation into dealing with painful, invasive infertility treatments and becoming a mother in my forties. So I forgave myself. I decided to treat myself well and hope my creative voice would come back.

I wrote in a blog post:

Kids are work. Important work; but I want my words back.

During the first year of motherhood, my creative output was extremely low. The words that had always flowed just wouldn't. And I didn't know how to bring them forth.

That is why it was such a surprise when I woke up the day after taking my daughter to the library for a reading group and wrote about the experience. Suddenly, the words flowed again.

Estelle's Edge: Every writer has fallow periods, but your words will come back, just as mine did and always do. Trust in the process.

Many writers want to write and have lots of ideas, but they just can't get them out. The adage about sticking your butt in the chair and writing sounds inspirational, but it's not that simple. When that feeling of futility strikes (and it does for everyone), I reassure them it's part of the process and suggest remedies for getting unstuck. If the muse just won't manifest, here are a few ways supported by scientific evidence to knock down those roadblocks so you can build something lasting with your words and achieve your goals.

13 Ways to Find Your Best Ideas

1. Repetition

Repetitive action relaxes. So let your creative energy flow while doing something over and over again, such as folding laundry, mailing out batches of holiday cards, vacuuming, coloring a complex geometric design (your own or from a coloring book), or doing dishes. According to a study done at the University of Oregon, rote activity allows the mind to wander, making it easier to tap into our creativity.

2. Endorphins

Still at a loss for words? Get those endorphins pumping. To generate creativity, try working out on a treadmill, going for a bike ride, or running outside. Research demonstrates that aerobic exercise allows the growth of new cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved with memory, idea generation, and imagination.

3. Music

Music helps you access the creative, expressive part of the brain and get yourself into a relaxed state. Some writers use classical music to kickstart their writing because it has no distracting lyrics.

4. Coffee

For a change of pace, head to a local coffee shop or library to write. Research shows that being around people working on their own creative projects encourages you to copy them — infusing you with a shared work ethic, concentration, and productivity.

5. Change

Can't seem to get started? Change the format.Turn your essay into a poem or letter. Or try a different font. I change my font from Times New Roman to Garamond or Comic Sans when I'm stuck. I also try writing essays in the form of a poem or letter to inspire my creativity. Changing the mode or format of your writing breaks up established patterns of thinking and encourages your brain to make new connections.

6. H20

Water can wash your blocks away. Many writers find their best creative ideas or solutions while taking a shower. The more relaxed and disengaged you are — like when you're showering or bathing — the more dopamine your brain releases, spurring creativity, insights, and ideas. (Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that communicates messages between nerve cells in your brain and body and works as a feel-good reward center.)

7. Walk

Try taking a stroll. A slow twenty-minute walk can help you break through a creative slump. Researchers at Stanford University found that walking increases a person's creative output by 60 percent, compared with sitting. That's because walking offers the same boost to your endorphins and serotonin — hormones that help improve mood, cognition, and concentration — as an aerobic workout.

8. New

Engage in new experiences. Try a new restaurant, take a vacation (or a staycation), or see a new movie to disrupt thought patterns that keep you stuck. If I feel stymied, sometimes I stretch my brain by researching odd topics (best chocolate cake recipes, or why camels spit), or the topic I'm writing about. Our brains process familiar information quickly, but they are slower to organize and synthesize new information, which makes the experience more memorable and pleasurable. This state encourages creativity.

9. Block

When you are blocked, try blocking your social media, too. Multitasking — in this case, switching between your writing and checking social media sites — overstimulates your brain, causing inefficient and scrambled thinking. Try making a deal with yourself to write for an hour or two without checking or posting. Apps and extensions like StayFocused and Block Site allow you to block distracting websites or set daily time limits for each site.

10. Break

Go ahead and have a mental margarita. Take a break from writing for an hour, a day, or a weekend. The mind needs downtime to think, ponder, incubate, and create. A study from the Netherlands found that even when we take a break from a project, our unconscious mind continues to process it. When I veg out, I spend time with family, watch TV (I love to binge on Real Housewives), or read a novel. I always come back refueled because my brain has been working in the background to crystallize my ideas.

11. Flow

Try writing in free flow. In Bird by Bird, her influential guide to writing, Anne Lamott says, "Write shitty first drafts." This advice is empowering. Many of my students edit as they write, which is a mistake. Your first draft is not the time to parse or refine your words; that will come later. Sit down and write as much as you can, without worrying about grammar, spelling, word count, structure, or phrasing.

12. Deadline

Give yourself a deadline — a short one, about fifteen minutes. Some people set a timer. See how much you can write without thinking about what you are writing, or second-guessing yourself during that time span. When the timer sounds, give yourself a five-minute reward, like a cup of tea or a small piece of dark chocolate, and then do it again. A short deadline reduces the pressure on you because you know it will be over soon, so all you need to do is get to work. You might feel compelled to keep writing, even after the buzzer sounds, and that's okay. You can continue, or you can stop, give yourself a break and a reward, and then do it again for an even longer time, perhaps twenty minutes or more.

13. Write

As I write my first draft, when I am at a loss for a word, a phrase, or a quote, I don't stop writing. I simply write the word SOMETHING in caps (you can choose your own term, like BLANK, FILL IN, or WORD). The point of doing this is to keep the words coming without censoring yourself. You will find it easy to fill them in once you get to the editing step.

My goal is always the same: to get to a flow state, a positive mental state in which you are so completely absorbed in a task that you lose your sense of time and place. It's a destination that isn't easy to reach, but getting there is worth the wait. So trust in the process, and you will find your words once again.

©2023 by Estelle Erasmus. All rights reserved.

ErasmusEstelle Erasmus is a professor of writing at New York University, the host of the Freelance Writing Direct podcast, and former "All About the Pitch" columnist for Writer's Digest.

Erasmus Excerpted from the book Writing That Gets Noticed ©2023 by Estelle Erasmus. Printed with permission from