Just like art, which finds different mediums and different meanings for each person, generating ideas for a written piece can be varied. While some people consider contemporary art forms to be more of an eyesore than actual art, many people today would rather go to the local contemporary museum than an old building featuring pieces older than their great, great, great grandmother does.
In the same way, one way of generating an idea may produce little result for one person while the same method may have another writer overflowing with ideas. This just proves that we as humans are all created differently; different tools produce different results for each of us. With that being said, I want to explore one method that has continuously, and sometimes painfully worked for me: stream of conscious writing.
When taken literally, stream of conscious writing is just that: your conscious thoughts streaming out of your head and down onto the paper. When your third grade teacher told you that you had to write for seven minutes without picking up your pencil, you probably just wrote, “I don’t care, this is stupid, why do I have to do this? I’d rather be doing anything else than this, like going on a roller coaster, or eating pizza, or maybe even both at once. What if they let you eat pizza on a roller coaster? They would have to invent something so that all the toppings wouldn’t fly off when you went down the hill…” and boom, your teacher just forced you to write in stream of conscious and you have created the next step in the evolution of theme parks. Who knew third grade could be so valuable in later life?
As a kid, it seems fun to write out the stupidest things that you can, just to fulfill the continuous writing requirement of the exercise. As adults, trying to continually write is a far more difficult challenge. We seem to have developed an internal voice along the way that says “wow, why would you even say that?” or “what kind of stupid idea is that!?” and suddenly the pencil stops and you're stuck on how bad a writer you are. This voice needs to be turned off, and fast, if this method for generating ideas is going to have any type of success. The point of stream of conscious writing is to create a flow of words and ideas, even if they have to be forced at first and even if they seem silly.
You are not trying to write the next literary masterpiece on your scrap piece of paper, and don’t even expect yourself to, because that’s just setting yourself up for failure. This kind of writing offers you the most freedom, so use it to be creative rather than box yourself in with expectations. You could use only bullet points, doodle sketches, don’t even write in the lines, or even a combination of all three! This is the one space where there are no rules, and you are writing for you and only you.
There comes a time in this process when you have written and written and in a moment, it clicks. All of a sudden, it becomes impossible to put your pen down for fear of not writing down one of the brilliant thoughts that are now flowing endlessly. Our minds have become so used to beginning to work when we are holding something in our writing hand (thanks for that habit, grade school!) but in this case, the movement seems to act as a trigger for our mind. It is a beautiful thing when you go from zero to 100 thoughts a second!
For a frustratingly good example of stream of conscious writing, pick up a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road: The Original Scroll. It is a grammar stickler’s nightmare, but Kerouac is never hindered by the conventions of chapter breaks or even paragraph indentations. These normal rules hinder the true flow of his mind, because humans don’t think in paragraphs and chapters. The whole book is just like reading a print out of his brain, and it’s extraordinary.
No one is saying that your piece has to completely ignore every single rule and convention of proper English style guides, but this method can give you clues as to how you think. Sometimes writing about whatever pops into your mind can lead to great ideas, and sometimes not, but you should never discount an idea right after it forms. Take time to write it out and then decide whether it is worth pursuing. This is a great way to form multiple ideas as well. I once began an idea generating session by writing out the words “I have no idea what to write about, but I know I want to write about something,” and after about 30 minutes, I had three full pages of an idea written out. I could track my process and then later go back and add details or edit my initial ideas, but it was all there on the page.
This form of writing can be frustrating or scary, because sometimes nothing comes, and then when it does, it sounds awful. My advice is to write about anything and everything you can think of: how your day has been, describe the room you are in, what is it about your best friend that you like so much? Also, don’t be discouraged if you seem to be at a loss, great works don’t happen overnight. If every writer were judged on their beginning ideas, the world would have a lot less books, so don’t be afraid to try out all of your crazy or seemingly boring ideas, and let those words flow!
I hope you will be surprised as to where your own unleashed thoughts can lead you!