Writing between the Tumbleweeds

The other day, a friend of mine asked me a simple question that I’ve been asked many times over the past 7 years:

So… do you know what you’re writing for NaNoWriMo this year?

I’ve been asked this question every year since I started doing NaNoWriMo and it has never bothered me before… “Nah,” I’d answer, “I don’t know… I’ll come up with something on November 1st or maybe October 31st.  No big deal.”

But this time… this time I kind of froze.  The truth is the same as always: no, I don’t know what I’ll be writing in 42 or so days.  But this time that answer didn’t sit well with me. This time I felt anxiety about it, frustration with it.  And since that day a couple weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about why this question and answer aren’t sitting well with me this year.

Over the many, many years I’ve been writing, one of the things to which I’ve grown accustomed – even taken for granted – is that every day there was always another idea awaiting me. Perhaps two or even three ideas might come my way on any given day. It might be sourced from something I spotted through the window, a movement, perhaps, seen out of the corner of my eye. It could come from a headline in the newspaper, quickly scanned and most likely misread in my haste.  It might be inspired by the smell of the restroom at my son’s school. Where the idea came from was of no consequence – it was just a given that there would be another idea.  And while I might not have time to sit down, dive in and explore the ideas and the exciting, new worlds and smells within them, the ideas were always there, a creative, little spark to brighten my day.  On those days when I could not make time to actually write, the ideas got jotted into a little notebook or Microsoft OneNote or Word file, safely stored away for the next writing session that came up. But on the days I could sit and write them… those days were creatively wonderful and energizing.

But lately, the ideas aren’t coming to me. My Microsoft Word file – which once contained little one-liners about the true meaning of restroom odors or explanations of why everyone should be afraid of tea drinkers and decaf – is empty.  The file of settings and character ideas is filled now with little digital tumbleweeds. The notebook I used to carry in my back pocket everyday is now gathering dust in a pile of papers on the corner of the desk in my dungeon office.  The voices of characters who used to call out to me throughout the day, begging me to put their story down on paper, have been silenced.

So when my friend asked me that simple question, “So… do you know what you’re writing for NaNoWriMo this year?” my answer was the same as always: “Nah, I don’t know…” But then I just kind of trailed off and in the little voice in the back of my mind whispered:

Where have the ideas gone?

I’ve talked many times in the past about not having time to write and while that was always true, the ideas were still there, still present and patiently waiting.  But now, they are gone. I look out the window and I only see trees and squirrels where I used to see alien landscapes and fuzzy, bio-mechanical vehicles. I go into the restroom at my son’s school and all I smell is… well, never mind what I smell in there. The point is that the things which used to provide me with limitless sources of inspiration are no longer working.

I am still somewhat confident that by November 1st there will be an idea or a phrase or a mental image of a landscape.  At least I am telling myself that I am confident in that.  But what if it doesn’t? What if the idea well has gone dry? What if all I’ve got to write about are the empty spaces between the tumbleweeds?

If (or when) you experience a dry spell like this, how do you get out of it and refill the idea well?


20 thoughts on “Writing between the Tumbleweeds

  1. I have these spells relatively frequently. For me, the only thing that works is…well, the clearest way to describe it is to invoke a tired analogy. I have to prime the pump. That is, for a certain period of time I force it. I write down anything that qualifies as an idea, no matter how bland, and I sit there with the notebook open, until the page is filled with ideas. At first those ideas, like the first few seconds of rusty water from the pump, aren’t worth much. But it generally doesn’t take too long for the creative mind to fall into old habits.

    • Since sitting there with the blank page open is the way I write anyway, this is also my prime thoght on how to get past this… just power through it. But for some reason, the concept seems daunting today.

  2. As a subset–or maybe just a specific example–of the above, I’ve had some success, making up a theme for a collection of short stories, and then trying to come up with ideas in that limited scope. For instance, I’ll write down “Modern Myths,” and then force out 12-15 ideas that involve mythical creatures living in the modern world.

    The ideas still generally stink at first, but until things get moving quality isn’t the goal. Quantity is.

  3. I tend to think of a book I’ve read or movie I’ve seen where I didn’t like a part of it or a character in it. This makes me think of plot or characters and I’m able to create something completely different from the book/movie because I use my own imagination to create the story, but I have something in my mind that upset me and I can be passionate about.

    I don’t consider this Fanfiction because I’ll never use someone else’s characters but an idea that got into my head, something that seemed ‘wrong’ and that with my prose, I can make it ‘right.’

  4. I’m not sure it has ever gone dry. I’m one of those who spend part of the day, daydreaming as they say. If I am at my desk looking out the window, I am not contemplating the next 25 questions on the test I am putting together. I am in a scene with characters and dialogue and situations and the whole works. I play it out. Sometimes as the main character. Sometimes not.

    I rework the scenes of the day or the week. I use totally new scenes that I invent. I try out different scenarios. The twit that took my parking space may be the generator of a full fledged Swat Team shoot out when he’s taken out by the crazy bad guy for taking his space.

    Sitting quietly, staring at space, meditating on the day? Let others assume I am. I’m busy reaching for the phone to negotiate a hostage crisis in my daydream.

    No most of it doesn’t get written down. That’s not the point. The point is exercising the part that lets me wander into fantasy-land at a blink. And besides, it makes life more interesting.

    NaNoWriMo? Yeah, I can sit down and crank out 50,000+ words in 30 days with no plot to start with. I just did with Camp NaNoWriMo but after having to rip that story in half in rewrite? I want to go into it with a strong direction and a plot so I don’t have to rip it in half after the fact.

    • That’s how I usually have been, too… sitting there doing one thing but mentally drifting off to some other, more creative place. I’d do it at work, or while mowing the lawn or whatever. It was a simple, seamless shift for me. Just isn’t happening easily these days.

      In any event, I look at NaNoWriMo every year as my “excuse” (note the quotes) to Just Write Anything and Just Keep Writing. Ripping it in half after the fact is expected and in some ways desired… because it means I wrote and wrote and wrote.

      • The problem is what got ripped in half was the plot. I now have two books. The first is at 21% of rewrite for the first round and it is slow going because I am restructuring the entire plot. The other is half a plot hanging there that is going to be in the same boat when I get to it.

        Suggestion? Try using your non-dominate hand to write. With your dominate hand write the questions. Example “Why am I not plotting?” or “what do I need to plot/write” and let the non-dominate answer. It connects both parts of the brain and sometimes the non-dominate will tell you what is going on. Mine writes like a 1st grader but is very blunt and to the point about situations.

  5. This is completely off topic–but inspired by your post (in the style that you find inspiration for your writing, so maybe I’m not so far off-topic). You use OneNote instead of Evernote? I just did some research on the two for one of my grade-level textbooks. Why do you like OneNote over Evernote? Or is it just because that’s what you have?


    • I despise Evernote. Hate it with a passion. It’s buggy, it crashes on me left and right and frankly, I don’t trust it. A colleague of mine swears by it and refuses to use any other tool for “shared communication”, but I can’t stand it.

      As for OneNote, when I first saw it I questioned why it even existed. Then I started using it. It is easy to categorize things and easy to keep track of daily writing efforts (for example). And now, I have a bigger reason… though it wasn’t true when I started using it: OneNote is on my Windows 8 Phone and as a result, I can edit the same documents on my phone as well as on my windows 8 computer (all without crashing).

      I’m sure Evernote must be useful to folks. I just don’t like it and I can’t get past the formatting and other bugs I’ve encountered when I’ve been forced to use it.

  6. If you’ve kept notebooks in the past with ideas, odds are you haven’t used all those ideas when you first got them. If you’re like me, probably you found one or two ideas that struck your fancy, and left the others in your notebook/computer file. What I do when I’m going through a dry spell is to take out one of those old notebooks or flip through the old box of index cards, and just read through. It’s likely that at least a couple of those ideas will be ready for you to write now, or at least they’ll point you in the right direction.

    • Haha. Yeah, I actually forgot about the old notebook I had burried in the bottom of a drawer until you just mentioned this. It’s definitely full of ideas I haven’t used… scenes, characters, half-written poetry. I’ll have to dig it out. Thanks for the reminder!

  7. What are you talking about? You aren’t dry at all. I love the title and yes, you should write about the spaces between the tumbleweeds. What an evocative image. Just think what you might find there – lost farming tools, abandoned pets, the seeds of miracle plants, the secret coda of people who meant to save the world before they disappeared. Where did they go? What drove them away? You have your whole NaNo right there in that title. Now go claim it.

  8. Reblogged this on Burning the Root and commented:
    Don’t forget to read the comments! Some great ideas there.

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