Most writers know the trapped feeling that comes when you need to write (because you haven’t blogged in three weeks, because you’re on deadline for a column, because you need to know you still can) but have nothing to write about. You start making notes on the weather, the people in the coffee shop, your aches and pains; but none of it goes anywhere, none of it interests you.
Lists of topics are forced and artificial. They don’t come from the deepest part of you. But sometimes they’re the best you’ve got. (I’m assuming you aren’t doing NaNoWriMo this year.)
A long time ago, I posted a list of writing topics. It still gets some hits, but I disabled the comments because I grew tired of reading variations on “This wasn’t useful at all.” A fair assessment. I had written it for myself, and it helped me, but maybe I had no business publishing it. Let me try again, and make this list (I hope) more generally applicable.
Some of these I’ve done; most, I haven’t. Yet.
1. Look up information in an encyclopedia about an animal. Write an essay or poem using this animal as a symbol of human nature or your own personality. I’ve written poems about the slug, the pillbug (a/k/a roly-poly), the common grackle, the dragonfly and the squirrel.
2. What good things in your life resulted from a huge mistake you made?
3. Write a how-to for something people don’t want to do: how to alienate friends, how to keep yourself awake at night.
4. Write a how-to for something people don’t admit wanting to do: how to slack off at work, how to make your spouse/partner feel unworthy of you.
5. Write from the point of view of a type of person of whom you disapprove. (A rich conservative, a welfare queen — it depends on your world-view — but we’re talking everyday people, not serial killers and the like.) Make it sympathetic. Don’t condescend.
6. Create an annotated bibliography of favorite books, songs, websites or films.
7. What do you fear irrationally, and why? (I’m scared of needles. The why is a story I haven’t written yet.) If you’ve successfully faced your fear, write about that.
8. What lessons have you “learned,” but been unsuccessful in applying? (For me, one of those lessons would be that not every situation is appropriate for a joke.)
9. What inauthentic thing do you do to make yourself seem different, interesting or intelligent? (I used to pretend to believe the moon landings were a hoax. When I discovered a website that combined that notion with all sorts of white-supremacy conspiracy theories, I gave that one up.)
10. What’s one belief you genuinely hold that others would find silly? Defend it. (I believe in ghosts.)
11. In what ways do you sometimes violate your conscience for convenience or squeamishness?
13. Make an extended comparison of two unlike things. For instance, how is being a landlord/tenant like being in an unhealthy romance? (That one has been done several times, though; maybe treating the workplace as a church would be more original, or the workplace as a costume party.)
14. Alternate history: what would daily life be like now, if one thing had happened differently in the past? (The vikings settled North America, Archduke Ferdinand was never assassinated, Edgar Allan Poe entered politics and became president.)
15. Think about a current trend that concerns you. What will the world be like in one hundred years if that trend continues?
16. Write about something many of your acquaintances seem to like, that leaves you cold. (Football, graphic novels, reality shows about privileged housewives.)
17. #16 can be fun, but it’s easy to snipe at popular things. It makes you look smart, and it doesn’t put your own taste on the line. What do you like that most people don’t (most people you hang out with, anyway), and why? (Christmas, the music of Abba.)
18. Speculate about some everyday phenomenon you don’t understand. (For instance, why do grocery stores stock lima beans, when almost everybody hates them? Who grows lima beans, and how do they make enough money to stay in business?) Try not to sound like Andy Rooney.
19. List all the reasons you should give up writing. Refute each.