Jess Nickelsen: Discombobulated
May 17, 2021 - Ideas


I feel like I need a photo of someone hitting their head against a desk, because that’s what this post is all about! You’ll just have to use your imagination to picture me sitting at my desk, surrounded by old notebooks and my journal (and a bowl of kimchi ramen and large mug of cinnamon tea), desperately trying to wring some interesting ideas out of my head.

I’m on the hunt, you see, for a story idea—or even just a snippet or vision or turn of phrase that I can use for a launching-off point—for an anthology my writing group is going to make. It’s sort of theme-less, though the common thread running through all the stories is that no matter what the genre or style of story, each has to include the following, in some shape or form:

  • the feeling of water
  • a bird
  • a guilty pleasure
  • an unexpected package
  • and the chariot tarot card.

Several of my writing compatriots have already finished their stories; there’s a sci-fi, and a dark fantasy, and I think there might be a finished literary piece as well.

I’ve started and abandoned several ideas so far. One about a cursed charioteer living in the desert (long story), another about a mailman, and yet another about a stowaway child. All (after hashing out some details in my journal) I decided I didn’t really feel all that excited about writing in the end.

I mean, yeah, okay, I could just write about one of those things and be done with it. And if I get really really stuck, I probably will. Just do a Ray Bradbury and see where it takes me. But they don’t have the absolute zing that tells me if I sit down I will absolutely bang something out, that the momentum will carry me through to the end.

I’ve tried all sorts of things, too. Different lists about the above story elements (it’s worth noting that some can just be mentioned in passing, if need be) to see if that triggers any ideas; journalling, freewriting, mind mapping, brainstorming…all those good words. Today in slight desperation I pulled down a notebook from the shelf where I’d done some” freewriting exercises based on various prompts. I was surprised to find a whole lot more in there than I had remembered, with several things I’d like to expand upon and play around with down the line…

…tuba playing ghosts, a surly futuristic teen, an odd encounter at a party (the starter was why not?”), plus another one about a rich girl (whose parents owned a planet) slumming it” on some sort of shitty world where everyone from earth was dumped when it was deemed we couldn’t look after the place.”

Also lists of words and objects that made me go, ooooh:

a ribbon | wisteria | scissors | a chipped plate | a chipped tooth | a blunderbuss | a dumbbell | parapluie | papillion | secretive blackbirds | ink | formalin | calamine | thermometer | suppositories | darkened rooms | sick rooms | sludge | particulate matter | limnal spaces | chickens | a mol | wet hair | wet fur | mist | fog |

(I also like looking at how my brain leapt from one thing” to the next, which you can see with parapluie…papillion’, and the medical sequence, but I am curious about limnal spaces…chickens…a mol’…)

Anyway, none of the above has really got me going for the anthology, but I also love looking at how our brain plays with ideas (like toys), turning them over and bashing them up against other ideas to see if they fit.

I like stories about how people get their ideas… from artists who sit in darkened rooms to let the visions come to them, to rituals around naps, drug-taking (caffeine and whatnot included), methods of trying to tap in to the subconscious brain (long walks, showers, mundane housework), trying to be playful, working with prompts, constraints, and lists…

Furthermore, isn’t it odd that some ideas we discard while others make us go YESS and fist-pump the air, when we recognise them?

In any case, I will keep pondering and playing,” and if I do land upon some method by which some fantastic idea comes to me, I will let you know. Perhaps it’s a matter of looking at some strange combinations, like chickens, interfering with things… (I suppose an egg could be an unexpected package”!)

P.S. I nearly forgot to recommend the very excellent website Sunday Scribblings, which, while now defunct, still has some lovely prompts and discussion about writing with prompts, by the now-extremely-successful Laini Taylor