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I was astounded when several close friends told me I would eventually “run out of ideas” and have to quit blogging. They each said it independently, and it applied not just to me, but to every blogger at Mythcreants. If this notion of idea scarcity doesn’t sound strange to you, let me demonstrate by making a few statements that I consider equally nonsensical:

“There’s no internet service at my beach cabin, so before I go on vacation, I’m going to download the web onto my hard drive.”

“As of today, I’ve been through every experience life has to offer. Nothing can surprise me anymore.”

“Sometimes I worry that time will finish at just the wrong moment, leaving me sitting on the toilet eternally.”

All of these statements have the same problem: they treat something infinite* as though it could end at any moment. The notion that someone will “run out of ideas” is no different. Ideas are infinite. There will always be more, waiting to be written.

Of course, my friends didn’t literally mean that there would be no more ideas in existence to write about. What they probably meant was that I would run out of inspiration.

That’s because writers don’t just grab ideas and put them into words. A writer’s job looks more like this:

  1. Consume an assortment of facts and concepts.
  2. Digest them in their heads.
  3. Sort and shape them into stories, articles, poems and other works.
  4. Put those works into words.
  5. Grind and churn the words until they’re smooth.
  6. Feed the words to the baby birds in their audience.

Periodically, our minds complete the first three steps without conscious effort from us. We call this inspiration. Even if we don’t write, unused inspiration slowly fills up a box in our heads, until it feels like it’s bursting. If you write regularly, you may take things out of that box faster than it’s being filled. After a while, many writers find themselves staring at this:

box-by-Arnold-Reinhold
Box by Arnold Reinhold used under CC BY-SA 3.0

If this is what you’re looking at right now, you’re facing the challenge that separates professional-level writers from hobbyists. Many hobbyists who would like to write more can’t make the leap because they are waiting for inspiration to fill the empty box for them. If you ever encounter a professional writer who runs on inspiration alone, take a picture, because you’ve just met Bigfoot. Even fiction writers with more story ideas than they could ever write will need to fill in scenes that inspiration hasn’t provided.

If you think the bottom of the box is an insurmountable barrier, you should know something: I “ran out of ideas” about a year ago, right after I started blogging. Most weeks, there’s nothing in the box. Then I do what every professional writer has learned to do – I fill it on command, when I need it.

How is it done? With a little googling, you’ll find lots of tips on finding ideas when they’re MIA. But since you’re already here, I’ll tell you how I do it:

  • Brainstorming: It seems obvious, right? That’s because it is. But the method of brainstorming can make a big difference. I find that if I start forcing myself to actually put down ideas, no matter how ridiculous they are, they get better and better until they start to sound pretty good. I hear other writers benefit from free writing – devoting time to writing down whatever comes to their mind on a regular basis.
  • Reading things: Groundbreaking, I know. But you can’t get to step 3 without step 1. Your mind requires fuel, and there’s no faster way to get it. I try to read lots of things that are similar to what I write, and some things that aren’t. Strangely, I get the most mileage out of works I think are terrible. There’s nothing like someone doing something wrong on the internet (or in a published book under a big name) to fire up visions of how it might be done right.
  • Sensory experiences: For my fiction writing, there’s nothing so valuable as music. Other writers walk around outside and watch people, or go visit cool places. Still others look for interesting imagery. These things can evoke intangible feelings that we struggle to put words to, and that struggle is often very productive.

Everyone is different. Maybe these will work for you, maybe they won’t. But one thing is important: don’t subscribe to the fatalistic notion that people simply “run out of ideas.” There are infinitely more ideas than you could ever use in your lifetime. The hard part is choosing one.

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