Arts & Culture

Where Do You ‘Scratch’ for New Ideas?

by Michele Tracy Berger

People often ask writers: Where do you get your ideas? How do you generate small ideas that lead to big writing projects? Writers need lots of ideas. Most projects that we start will not come to fruition, so generating many ideas is a must. I’m usually an idea machine, but occasionally the well runs dry. This is true for myself and my clients. So, over the years, I’ve learned some techniques that help writers and other creatives.

Twyla Tharp, world famous choreographer, in her understated, but powerful book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use it For Life, uses the concept of ‘scratching’ as a method for finding and incubating new ideas. 

‘Scratching’, she observes is what we do so we aren’t always waiting for the ‘thunderbolt’ of inspiration to hit. Tharp says, “That’s what I’m doing when I begin a piece. I’m digging through everything to find something. It’s like clawing at the side of a mountain to get a toehold, a grip, some sort of traction to keep moving upward and onward.”

Tharp notes the importance of reading as a place to scratch for ideas. Many writers reread the classics or works by mentors they love as a way to sharpen their senses and generate new perspectives. Tharp likes to read ‘archeologically’, backwards in time, working her way from a contemporary idea back to an ancient text. When working on an idea for a dance, she began with Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy which led her to Dionysus and then studies of Dionysus (worship of and symbols connected to), which led her to Euripides and his The Bacchae. These readings led to her choreograph ‘Bacchae’, a dance that explores hubris and is loosely based on the Euripides text. 

Inspired by her strategy, years ago, I made a list of the subjects that I typically read about both as an academic and as a creative writer. 

List: self-help/’how to’ in yoga, health and wellness; women’s health, public speaking, craft of writing books, cookbooks, leadership, 18–20th century African American history, spirituality, creativity, African American women, feminism, dreams, sociology of race, women’s and gender studies, elections and campaigns, history of the American university, genres: science fiction and fantasy, mysteries and thrillers, literary fiction.

When finished with this list, I felt pretty impressed. But then I asked myself, what are the subjects I rarely read in, have no working knowledge of, couldn’t put two sentences together about, or even avoid?

List: general biographies, colonial American history, futurism, crafts, dance, art history, travel memoirs, wars, ancient history, animals, romance, celebrities, adventure nonfiction, sailing, cars, history of language, math and science, sports, Native American history, nature, children’s books, plays, poetry, Christian fiction, true crime, technical books.

Doing this exercise motivated me to scratch many unexplored subjects. For me, usually a good story idea comes from two or three unusual sources or pieces of information.

What would your reading lists look like? How can you cross-pollinate your lists?

Here are three of my favorite ways to generate new ideas:

Try on a different genre (or even subgenre). It’s always fun to explore a different writing genre than the one that’s become your norm. In a memorable writing workshop, the instructor encouraged us to take a short piece that we were working on, keep the characters, but rewrite it using a different genre. This exercise felt so liberating. I found myself exploring space opera with what had started out as a realistic story. I have little working knowledge of space operas, but it was fun to use my imagination to fill in the gaps. 

Travel Where we grew up shapes us as writers in complex ways. Make a digital pilgrimage researching a writer you admire. Explore through memoir, biography and, if available, archives that delve into the writer’s early and young adult life (i.e., home life, region, town, city, etc.). Explore how their environment influenced them and think about similarities and differences between their life and your own. While researching you might come across bits of information that you can use creatively. 

Journal Keep a dream journal for a few months. Dreams have always been fertile territory for creative people. While we sleep, our subconscious is free to speak back to us symbolically. If you record your dreams, over time you begin to see patterns and a private language at work. Sometimes when I review my dream journal, I’ll find a vivid image that sparks a story idea. For fun, I like to title my dreams as doing so can prompt a scene for a story or poem. The trick to remembering dreams is to awake slowly (staying still for a moment), keeping one’s eyes closed for as long as possible and then to rise and immediately record the dream. 

Michele Tracy Berger is a scholar and creative writer. She is founder of The Creative Tickle®, a creativity coaching practice. To receive her free guide: Ten Ways to Keep Connected to Your Writing Self during COVID-19 go to: