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?