How to Develop Ideas for Writing

Even though it was five years ago, I still remember something Gary Shteyngart said at a reading at Powell’s about a habit that impacted his inspiration. The lesson resonates with me to this day.

He mentioned that he used to pay more attention. He used to observe people and his environment, when he was out and about New York City, which he calls his home. This was when iPhones first came out, and he said that since he got one, he paid less attention, because he was always looking down at the thing.

But since he got an iPhone, he said he doesn’t do that as much, because he’s always looking down at the thing.

That made me a little sad for him. I enjoy his books, and I enjoy how his stories can be both heartbreaking and hilarious at the same time. At the time I had not yet gotten my first smart phone, but they were becoming more and more popular. I was noticing that people were less attentive to the world around them, because they were always looking down at these things.

As a writer, I get all my ideas from either two ways: 1.) observing or 2.) letting my thoughts wander. I used to ride the bus a lot, so I had a lot of time on my hands to do both of those things. I get all my best ideas by observing other people around me or asking the question, “What if?” These things hold special keys that unlock doors in my mind.

This second one is most useful. I’d say most of my lightbulb moments – moments when I’m not actively brainstorming and good ideas float to the surface – come during the most mundane activities: commuting, vacuuming, or grocery shopping. For creatives, our minds need that exercise, when it’s not attached to any one activity or thought or problem that it needs to solve or a story that is happening in the world. Being connected and engaged hinders that activity of allowing the mind to roam and discover those doors and the secrets hidden inside them.

And there are countless mundane moments throughout the day, when you’re standing in line, waiting for the bus, waiting to meet someone at a cafe, walking down the street, in a waiting room, and so many others.

Imagine if instead of spending those times staring at your phone, you spent the time just being still, observing people around you, and alone with your thoughts and allowing them to wander.

I am by no means a curmudgeon. My iPhone affords a lot of convenience. But I’ve also wasted so much precious time on that damn thing, playing Angry Birds instead of reading a book, being on Facebook instead of taking in the world around me.

Staring at that thing is not going to “help you write”, either. I find that very hard to believe. I’ve seen what’s on the Internet. Some of it is inspiring, but the rest of it is fluff and anger. And when you’re wrapped up in the fluff and anger, you’re too damn distracted.

I get it. Sometimes you just need to block out the world. But how much do you need to block out really? Are you relying too much on what that little screen gives you? What would you be doing if you weren’t looking at your phone?


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