(I'd like to thank Leona Wisoker, a talented writer who's also had me blogging at her blog, for this contribution on writing, ideas, and fear – something a lot of us know of. I reccomend her blog as she has some fascinating insights.)
I used to be paralyzed by the thought that I had nothing worth saying, no skills with which to say it, and nobody who would want to read it anyway. Even after landing a four-book contract deal, publishing a handful of short stories, and running a relatively regular blog for almost two years now, I still hear those statements in my head nearly every day:
It's a fluke. It's not real. People are just being nice to me. If I was a 'real' writer, I'd be signed with a Big Name Press, like Tor or Baen. I'm an upstart and I'm going to get squashed very very soon now….
The difference between the paralysis of ten years ago and today is, partially, that I'm using a simple trick: Take the thoughts seriously but not literally. Just because I think something is happening doesn't make it so. When the fears listed above start to circle, I go thumb through my author copy of each book to remind myself that it is real; I look at the various positive reviews out there, most by strangers who are quite savage when they dislike a book; I remind myself that I'm actually extremely happy with my current publisher.
Am I still small beans? Absolutely. That doesn't mean I'm a bad writer or a bad person.
Another, larger component of overcoming my paralysis lay in facing the I don't know what to write anxiety. The key to that was, I believe, letting go of my preconceptions and allowing myself to be interested in many things, even viewpoints and actions I may not personally agree with.
For a slightly inflammatory example (anything less would not make the point as well), I am not, personally, "into" BDSM. I have met and become friends with several wonderful folks who are, and I've discovered that it's a truly interesting subject. I respect the validity of BDSM culture and subcultures, which are much more complex than I ever would have suspected.
I am also well aware that I know very little of what there is to know, but that there's a limit on how much I really want to learn on this topic, so I'm not being particularly aggressive with my research. My point is that ten years ago, BDSM would have been an absolutely untouchable topic for me, something to snigger over, perhaps, or make condescending comments about. I was ignorant, and it handicapped me as a writer and as a human being.
(To ease any ruffled feathers a bit, the above point would work with almost any topic in place of BDSM. For example, "breeding cats", or "skateboarding". Then there's knitting, painting, living on a boat, foster parenting, farming…you get the point.)
My creative paralysis came in part from fear I wasn't good enough, but largely because I simply didn't know enough yet. The more I pushed myself to meet new people, the more I explored the world around me, the more I, yes, read–the more ideas I had and the easier the writing became.
Now I have files and notebooks and bulletin boards filled with ideas, scraps of prose and dialogue, a line or two of plot summary or a potential title. Here's a small sampling of what's in my files:
The Article Ideas File: Genghis Khan's Pony Express; Kamikaze: origins and events; Hashish-eaters: the original assassins.
The Project List File: write a story based on the Jewish legend about the spirit of selfishness being locked up (Kushner, To Life, p. 64); write about the electronic age's version of hari-kiri– short story or article; research static electricity; research sakyamuni.
The Starter Sentences File: "Books were piled around the room as if to shield against accusations of dullness."; "A flood of ink broke across the page, blessedly obscuring the banalities Jen had been writing."
Clearly, I never actually did anything with the above notions, but there are other fragments that I have used. A high school writing exercise was pulled out of the "coma files" (not quite dead but barely breathing); updated with some actual experience, it went into my first novel, Secrets of the Sands. An old poem fragment I wrote, also in high school, has been put aside to use at some point in the series. It showcases a passionately bleak worldview that I cannot, as an adult in a reasonably happy life, fully recapture.
Nothing ever really gets wasted, except opportunities. And in that sense, fear is the biggest thief there is, because it turns what if into what might have been.
What to write about? Where to get ideas? Step away from all the ways to communicate without connecting, and go explore the real world around you. Do something at least once a week that you've never tried before, however simple it might be: Go on a meditation retreat. Go to a science-fiction convention. Go on a walk with no idea where you're going.
Anything and everything is fair game, and you'll not only gain self-confidence by proving that you can do it, you'll start getting ideas. What if…in a futuristic society, meditation retreats are compulsory? What if… religious fundamentalists infiltrated a science-fiction convention? What if…I turn left instead of right…..?
You get the point. Ideas are all around you. You won't find them sitting at your computer, though–so close out the browser window–yes, right now–and go do something new. I promise, the Internet will still be here when you get back….