I’m writing you this love letter in response to one of the most common frustrations that readers share with me. It goes something like this: “I know I’m meant to write, but when I sit down and try to start, I don’t know what to say. I have a lot of ideas, but none of them seem very good…” When I get an email like that, it’s bittersweet. I know the pain of that yearning. But I also know that pain is what prods us to take a risk and dare to write! Beginning a project can come down to one question: How do you choose the right idea to write?!
Take a deep breath…
No, really. A big, deep breath will inject some oxygen into that hard-working brain and relax those anxious shoulders. There. Better.
Now, before we talk about ideas and writing, let’s explore the intense frustration you’re feeling about selecting a topic. And it is intense. But is frustration really at its root? Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so…
Basically, you’re afraid.
And so am I. Every time I hit ‘Publish’, every time someone asks about one of my books, and every time I type my way through a difficult scene or chapter. So I get it. I’m not calling you a weakling or a fool, because I’m right there with you.
But I have found it helpful, especially as I get older, to pause and tune into my emotions more. I facilitate a little back-and-forth with myself to try to get to the bottom of a problem. Try it! Ask yourself, “What are you afraid of?” and answer honestly. It may take a few follow-up whys, but you can get to the foundation of an emotion this way.
I’ve found there are two big reasons most writers are afraid:
Fear of Falling Short
“What if I write my novel and it’s awful?”
“But what if I publish a children’s book that kids won’t like?”
“What if I pitch my idea to my favorite publications and no one wants it?”
Rejection is real. Underneath the surface lies a belief that it’s better not to know whether we could have succeeded than to face rejection.
But consider something. One of the big reasons rejection stings so much is that, for most of our human history, rejection had dire costs. If you were rejected from your family or community, that meant you had no support and had to somehow survive on your own–which was not likely to end well for you. And for that reason, we’re wired to avoid rejection whatever it takes.
So it may be necessary to really think about what’s at stake. No one’s going to throw you out of your house or shun you (unless you’re writing something really risky–and if that’s the case, you probably have granite nerves, anyhow, so this isn’t for you…). Yes, your social connections may snicker behind your back, or you may draw the ire of an internet troll or two, but there are few real-world consequences associated with these responses. We live in a marvelous time when technology allows creatives to express their ideas like never before. For maybe the first time, our obstacles are primarily internal!
Take a few moments to count the cost. For me it looked like this:
I’m afraid. Why?
Because people will think my ideas and my writing skills are ridiculous or repulsive. Who will?
People who don’t like me that much, or who aren’t happy when I’m doing well. Are those people my friends?
No. Should I be making life decisions in order to please people who aren’t my friends?
…and so on. Write down this conversation with yourself so you can reference it later when you need a jolt of bravery.
Fear of Succeeding
Before you shrug off this possibility, I want to warn you that this is more common than you think–even if you have healthy self-esteem!
The reality is, many of us are comfortable climbing to the next level of achievement, but the level after that? Major discomfort!
We think, “Oh, I can totally commit to starting a blog and posting once a week. But teaching workshops? No way. If I share my work face-to-face, people will think be able to see through me and know I’m a fraud.”
See if any of these statements ring true for you:
“I’m good at ____________, but I could never ___________.”
“I’ve always been a disaster with money, so I know if I made more of it, I’d just lose it as fast as I got it.”
“If I started ________________, people would find out what a disaster I am and the small success I’m enjoying now would be ruined.”
“There’s no way I could do ___________________ and still (be a good parent, good friend, volunteer for a meaningful cause, etc.). Other people will suffer if I do well.”
Impostor syndrome is so, so real–and it hurts. If you feel like you can’t take the next step for yourself, you may have to do it for the ones you care about the most. What example will you set for your family? When your children find themselves at a similar roadblock, would you want to see them shrink away from their dreams? No? Then you have to find a way to break through this obstacle.
Hire a coach, visit a wise counselor, find a mentor who’s living the life you want–just do what it takes to make the next step!
How to Choose the Right Idea to Write
Okay, we had to address fear. Now we can get down to the business of choosing an idea.
When you feel free (or at least freer) from fear, you might find that one idea starts to stand out a little more than the others. It reveals itself to you, almost raising its hand and saying, “Me! Pick me!”
But if you still feel lost in a cloud of ideas, here’s how to qualify them and narrow your focus:
1.) Write down all your ideas on one piece of paper (front and back if necessary) or type them into one document.
2.) Go have a snack, take a walk, sort the mail, or do some laundry. Spend at least a couple of hours away from your ideas list. In fact, it’s even better if you can put the list aside overnight.
3.) Return to your list with a highlighter, colored pen, stub of a crayon–anything that will catch your attention. Say each idea aloud. Some of your ideas will sound idiotic when you speak them into the air. Don’t worry, they’re probably not. But those that fall flat are definitely not worth your focus–at least not right now. You can always come back to the list later. Who knows? Maybe those duds will have matured by then and they’ll be ripe and ready to harvest.
But for the moment, you’re looking for the ideas that leap, the ones that shine. No polishing necessary, they’re ready to tell and be told. Highlight those.
4.) Go over the list once again, this time numbering your highlighted ideas in order of least urgent or compelling, to the ones that are really hot and begging to be chosen. This is when the weirdness happens.
For me, the lower end of the list is easy to identify. I’ll knock those choices out quickly.
The middle gets sticky. Ugh, which is number eight and which is number seven? Does it even matter? And why should I—BAM!
Like an arrow plunging into a target, the best idea presents itself.
So I stop ranking, circle that idea, and get down to business.
I don’t know why it happens this way. It’s spooky, very Muse-like. It’s as if the idea has had enough of my piddling around, gets impatient, and decides to stop hiding. “LOOK AT ME, DOLT!”
Maybe it will happen that way for you, too. If so, tell me in the comments!
“What If I Can’t Think of Any Ideas?”
If you have the opposite problem–zero ideas–you can read this post, How to Discover and Develop Great Ideas. Also, reading and watching people in a public setting always get my creative engine started. If you have other suggestions, drop them in the comments, below!
Need More Help?
Check out my workbook, Writers Write. It’s designed to help you deal with distractions, capture inspiration, and get stuff done 🙂 Click here to find out more.
NOW YOU: What’s your selection process? How do you find the right idea to write?
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