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The Secret To Finding New Ideas

Is this a magic trick?

Kinda no and kinda yes. let me explain. I’m going to show you a simple exercise, which if practiced diligently will teach you how to find wonderful new ideas. Ideas you never thought you were capable of and you’ll have no clue where they came from. The exercise is called ‘Free Writing’ and I find it an incredible process for generating new work.

The purpose of ‘Free Writing’ is to ‘hitch your unconscious mind to your writing arm.’ — Dorothea Brande

The more you practice the exercise, the more it rewards you. I return to this practice more than any other when I’m stuck on a project or need a shift in perspective. I rate it so highly I would even go so far as to say it’s a gateway to accessing your muse. (ssh keep it quiet or everyone will have good ideas!) I find the quality of what comes up for me when I am doing this exercise much richer. Less self-conscious. I am not employing the same intentional thinking method that I normally use to direct my writing. It feels like I am by-passing that and tapping into something much deeper.

Shall we go through this together? OK lets begin.

Stage One

Flick through an interesting magazine or book (National Geographic works for me). When you get to an image that resonates with you in some way, stop. I find images a great way to access inspiration. It could be a landscape or culture I’m unfamiliar with, something that creates mystery or possibility.

Now set a timer for 10 minutes and write. Pen on paper. Use your image as your initial launch and then just go with what comes into your head. Whatever it is!


The unconscious is shy, elusive, and unwieldy, but it is possible to tap it at will and even direct it.” — Dorothea Brande

So now you are writing. You realise, it’s not as easy as it sounds. In can be hard getting past the fierce regulating grip of the inner critic. When I started doing the exercise I had to be quite stubborn with myself to get through it. My inner critic kindly informed me what I’m doing was stupid, futile and useless.It gave me insight into how much my writing was plagued by a regulating judgemental force. The insight helped me dig deeper. I started writing down what my critic was saying until the insults exhausted themselves. I carried on. Most of what came up for me to start with was nonsense, however there was always a pearl to be found. It may only have been the germ of an idea but it was something that felt special. At the end of the 10 minutes stop writing, get yourself a well-deserved cup of coffee and relax. That’s great work!

Sit down to write what you have thought, and not to think about what you shall write.” — William Cobbett

Stage Two

Now you have refueled, go back over what you have written and underline any interesting ideas, phrases that are worth developing. It might just be one or two words but they hook you in some way. Now set your timer for another 10 minutes and repeat Stage One using your new idea to launch with.

Watch your attitude towards the exercise.

I have found that experimenting with different ideas towards the exercise interesting to work with. Sometimes just a slight shift in the way I am relating to it can harvest different results. Here are some perspectives I play with.

Write as if your life depended on it.

Pretend you are the last person on the planet and you have to pass vital information to a new race of beings.

Forget you have standards.

Drop your guard.

Be unrestricted, unregulated.

Don’t do what you think you should do.

Don’t be concerned with writing something moral or clever.

Write like nobody’s watching, including yourself.

Get out of your own way.

Just let it flow.

Don’t do it for fame, glory or to achieve something brilliant.

“To gain your own voice, you have to forget about having it heard.”
— Allen Ginsberg.

Stage 3

Now take another short breather and go back over what you have written. Underline the parts that stand out. Put those ideas onto a blank page and see what comes up for you. How does it feel? What is your response? Now try to write 500 words without a timer developing the ideas and themes you have underlined. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t find the secret to the universe at the first attempt. Like all things practice is the key. Keep trying. Why not try this exercise for 10 days and see where you are at the end of that process? If your experience is anything like mine, you will surprise yourself! To find out about other ways to stimulate creative thinking, see my resource page here.

Dip in to the sea, to the sea of possibilities — Patti Smith


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