This week, Dr Elizabeth Blackburn shared in winning the Nobel Prize for Medicine, and in The Age she is quoted as saying: Chance favours the prepared mind. This has stuck with me for days, and I've been thinking about how it applies - to writing, and to life in general. Students often complain that there are no new story ideas, so how can you write anything original? Or I tell them to make things worse and worse for their character until there is total disaster and no way out. But then, they say, how can you come up with a story solution?
By preparing the way and letting the supposed 90% of your brain that you don't use much help you out. Writers often rush. They push an idea too hard and beat it to death, or give up too easily before finding what it needs to become more original. Kids are notorious for writing stories that end "and then I woke up and discovered it was all a dream". It's because they can't work out a good ending so that one will do. As writers, we can't give in that easily.
So what is the prepared mind? For a start, one that is used to writing. If you only write once a month, then forcing your story into action will be a big struggle. It takes you so long to find your feet in it again that there's no mental room for spreading your wings (sorry about the cliches - couldn't resist!). I find if I haven't written any poems for a while, I need to write three or four bad ones before I rediscover the rhythm and imagery I need to create something I'm happy with. If you work on your novel or your writing project regularly, it will be happily bubbling way in the back of your mind and provide you with new ideas and inspirations.
I suggest to students that when they are working on a story in the early stages, they spread out their notes or diagrams or plans on a table, or stick them to a wall, and regularly come back for another read and a ponder. Each time you think of something new, add it in. You will be amazed how physically keeping the project in front of you will create sparks and leaps, and enable you to take the ideas to new horizons or higher levels.
It's also helpful to keep a notebook specifically for each project. Carry it with you and read bits when you have spare moments, then add new material when it pops up in your mind. This can work for anything, not just writing. You may have a building project on the go, or a work assignment - keeping it physically with you enables you to jot down ideas on the spot. If you have created an impossible situation for your character and don't know how to get them out of it, put it aside and go for a walk, or leave pen and paper beside your bed and go to sleep thinking about it. Often the solution will seemingly "just come to you" - but it doesn't really. You've prepared your mind, given it the materials it needs and the questions you want answered, and now it works away in the background and eventually will give you an outcome. Or several outcomes. The more the better!
I've been talking about focused idea nurturing, but it works in a general way, too. If you're a writer, you may worry that you will run out of ideas, but really all you have to do is be open to them, prepare the way by telling yourself you're ready and waiting, and then grab each idea as it passes and write it down. There are thousands of them out there. And if you feel stuck, give yourself an assignment. Buy a 48 page notebook and commit to writing a poem or a paragraph every day for 48 days, no matter what, no matter how silly the topic might seem. For writers who love deadlines, that's a winner!