Where do blog ideas come from?


People often ask me how I maintain a blog. How do I manage to write a post twice a week? On top of all of the other writing too… How exactly does it happen?

My usual answer is that I’m simply addicted to writing. I write most days and always have done. I can’t remember not writing. But I’ve never been a diary-ing person. I wasn’t one of those teenage girls who wrote her daily secrets in a book kept under the mattress. I’ve just always written – stories, papers, bits and pieces of dialogue, letters, essays. So it’s not too hard to just make some of that daily writing blog posts. But that answer begs the questions of where the topics to write about come from.

Yes, of course I sometimes struggle for ideas about what to write. I do keep a list of ideas I might write about. I do say that if pushed. However, what I don’t usually tell people is that I often don’t start a post with an actual worked out idea. Some posts I know in advance what I’ll say. Someone has asked me a question or I’ve decided there’s a writing problem I ought to say something about. But quite a lot of the time I start with a blank screen and a single word or two taken from my list, and I just start typing more words and playing with them. An idea soon takes over and I have a post of some kind. This kind of associational writing often means I go off to find some reading mid-way through; I’ve recalled a thought/idea/quotation which has then made its way into the writing.

For a long time I thought that this approach to generating ideas for posts was a pretty odd habit. I wanted to keep it quiet. But then I discovered that it is exactly what the late Ray Bradbury did. He wrote everyday, but more importantly, he always began a new story with nothing particular in mind. He did however keep a list of words which intrigued him – the meadow, the monster, the attic and so on… On the morning he was to begin a new story he sat down at his typewriter, randomly selected a word from the list – or perhaps was called to a word on the list – and then began typing associated words. Phrases and sentences and paragraphs followed this associative trail. He just wrote. And as he typed a story emerged.

This “playing around with words”, free associating, is a bit like the line drawings, the shuffling images, the rolling and punching down of clay that some artists use to being to begin a new work. You do something with the material, you mess about with it, and something comes into your mind.

Bradbury, a prolific writer, generally wrote the first draft of a new story in a day. It then took much longer for him to redraft and edit and redraft some more. Bradbury urged others to try out writing fast and in this associative way. Not all the time, but as a way to find an idea and develop it.

Run fast, stand still. This, the lesson from lizards. For all writers. Observe almost any survival creature, you see the same. Jump, run, freeze. In the ability to flick like an eyelash, crack like a whip, vanish like steam. Here this instant, gone the next – life teems the earth. And then that life is not rushing to escape, it is playing statues to do the same. See the humming bird, there not there. As thought arises and blinks off, so this thing of summer vapour, the clearing of cosmic throat, the fall of a leaf. And there it was – a whisper.

What can we writers learn from lizards, lift from birds? In quickness is truth. The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought, in delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling or tiger-tapping.
Ray Bradbury (1990) Zen in the art of writing. Santa Barbara: Joshua Odell editions p 13

I’m absolutely sure that this approach won’t work for everyone – although Bradbury seem to think that it will and that everyone should write this way. But it does work for me, although I can hardly compare my modest little posts with a Bradbury short story, novel or poem. But blog post writing is much more a creative process of fast working than any other academic writing I do. But having said that, I do often have a similar approach to pre-planning academic writing – this is where I just start typing around an idea, writing my way into an angle, an argument, a paper.

I don’t think of this as ‘free writing’, because the post has a set point to start with – the list – and a repeated associational technique. I hadn’t thought of this as deadfalling or tiger-tapping before I read Bradbury, but I do now. His seems a more purposeful notion to me than free writing although I’m sure that people will tell me it’s the same. Associational fast writing to me signals the process is about growing possibilities, letting an idea build up from just writing around and through an initial word or two.

Next time someone asks me how I manage to write two posts a week I think I’ll ‘fess up. I’m a frozen lizard most of the time, I’ll say, and then I just run. I’m a blink, a statue, a whisper, a throat clearing… I’ve got a minuscule and tiny little bit of Bradbury’s writing zen, and I exercise it regularly writing posts.

And the word that started this post off was ‘fast’.