In the first creative writing course I took in college, I felt like my life was boring. I had nothing interesting to write about. The professor told us to pull from childhood memories, so I wrote a poem about feeding the cows on the farm where I grew up. When I read the poem aloud in class, I expected a little laughter, but instead I looked around and everybody was engaged. They asked questions about the cows, and they asked about the process of feeding them. They encouraged me to add more sensory details.
Turns out my rural upbringing fascinated these kids—most of them had grown up in the suburbs. What seemed familiar and ordinary, even boring, to me offered unusual and engaging content for others.
This was a revelation, and it has served me well. My world and the way I experience and process it serves as fodder for my next writing projects. That’s what I want you to discover, too. Someone, somewhere, is going to be delighted to read about your world and the way you experience and process it.
So, do you need ideas for your next writing project? Take inventory of your life.
Take Inventory of Your Life
It sounds so simple, so basic, but I don’t know how many writers take time to reflect on all the content available from the life they’ve lived and the life they’re living. From where you sit, you can generate fresh ideas by reflecting on your past, dusting off memories, and tapping into your existing knowledge base.
To discover what lies inside you just waiting to contribute to the core of our next story or article or essay, I’d like to offer a few categories you can start thinking through. As you do, you can throw the information into an idea file like a spreadsheet, Evernote, or your bullet journal for easy access—maybe in the same place you’re storing your 50 headlines. That way you’ll have material on hand when you need to write and pitch something new.
Go all the way back to your first job, even if that means the candy stand in third grade you set up at the local pool or your summer job weeding your neighbor’s flower garden. Ideas like those can be leveraged for articles like “Job Ideas for Industrious Kids” or “Elementary-Aged Entrepreneurs.”
Keep going and list all the jobs you’ve ever worked. Describe what you did, who you met, challenges you faced, lessons you learned, information and skills you gained. This adds to your collection of material to draw from, as you might recall a stressful interaction with a colleague or a disappointing encounter with your boss or the time you spilled an entire cup of root beer all over yourself during a meeting with the acquisitions editor of a publishing house. Not that I know anything about that.
People You Know
Do your friends and family members have experiences or stories you could use in your work? A good friend of mine, for example, is an inspiring entrepreneur whose philosophy of work fit a publication I often write for, so I interviewed him for an article. List people you know and key facts you might use in your writing sometime, and then when you’re looking for an idea, you can flip through these notes about friends and, with their permission, feature their story in an upcoming piece.
Places You’ve Lived
Record all the places you’ve lived. While the locations, climate, and demographics may seem ordinary to you, city people may be fascinated by an essay about country living, as I discovered with my cow poem and countless people have found when reading Wendell Berry. Or maybe you’ve lived on another continent and can contrast life there with where you’re living now. Or you could talk about cross country moves and cross-cultural challenges. Tap into your life for material related to locales you know well—they don’t have to be exotic to hold interest.
Places You’ve Visited—and Plan to Visit
List all of the places you’ve visited and your upcoming vacations to see if you can generate a fresh take on a trip. Find the right slant—for example, consider your mode of travel, the deals you find and the way you find them, how you pack for the size of your family, or how you safely travel solo. All if this can be used to write something new. By taking time to inventory your journeys, you may find an idea for an article you could land in a travel publication.
Unexpectedly Acquired Knowledge
You also have a lot of knowledge inside of you. Some of it came from your work experience. Some of it came from living life. Some of it may have come to you unexpectedly. Have you learned the best way to get raccoons out of your attic? Have you designed a deck to surround a tree?
Sometimes life hands us experiences we didn’t ask for but we end up with knowledge—knowledge other people might need, too. Share your unexpectedly acquired insight through articles and essays. These can go out to relevant publications, and you might help someone who, like you, woke up to the sounds of critters scratching around in their rafters, and, like you, the readers want them out. If you have that knowledge, wouldn’t it be great to share it?
Hobbies and Sports
Don’t forget about hobbies and sports. You can write about your woodworking skills, your love of horses, your involvement in a local running club. You might already subscribe to a magazine devoted to this kind of specialty interest. If you know the publication well, why not find the submissions guidelines and pitch an article about the latest bowl you turned on your lathe or the horse show you attended last week? Or write a spotlight of the running club to submit to the local paper?
Capture Your Stories
This might be one type of life inventory you already practice, and that’s to mine your memories and write them into scenes whenever you have a few minutes free. You can tease them to the surface using the simple prompt, “I remember…” Once written, you’ll have those scenes available for when you want to expand them into a narrative essay or weave them into a more comprehensive piece.
It’s in You
We can always generate writing ideas using methods like prompts, mind-maps, and Artist Dates, but don’t forget to take inventory of your life. If you take the time to do that work, you may find that life has already given you everything you need to advance your writing career.
Click on the podcast player above or use subscription options below to listen to the full episode.
- How to Generate Ideas for Writing
- #50: Stop Waiting for Last-Minute Inspiration (Home of the 50-Headline Challenge)
- #51: How to Make the Most of Your 50 Headlines
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Images by Ann Kroeker.
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