Self-Inspiration: An Archeological Dig Into Your Own Writing

NOTICING WHAT’S MISSING in a piece of writing is a bit of a parlor trick—but one that comes in very handy! This exercise will show you how to apply this trick to a piece of your own, whether you’re in the parlor or at your desk.

Today, dig into your writing stash—journals, notebooks, files, blog posts—whatever you’ve got. You’re looking for a piece that still interests you, one that you suspect has something left to say. Something you’re willing—even excited—to experiment with a bit more.

If it’s not in hard copy already, print the piece out and read through it with a highlighter in your hand. Highlight anything that feels potent, alive, or shiny—any idea or phrase or image that intrigues you. (If you’re looking at a book-length manuscript, take it one chapter at a time.)

Once you’ve finished freckling the pages with neon yellow or green, cruise through again. This time, at each highlighted spot, ask yourself, Is there more to say about this? Can I take this image further? Does this idea interest me enough to say more about it? Have I fulfilled the promise of this phrase?

Circle the bits you think might have more to give in a different color. Choose one idea, image, phrase, etc., from those that most interest you, and write it at the top of a fresh page. Then start writing from or about it, as if it had never been part of another piece. Take twenty minutes to free associate, free-write, dig in—going wherever your mind takes you.

If you slow down or feel you’ve emptied the well, rewrite the original phrase or image on a new line and take off in whatever direction comes to you.

At the end of twenty minutes, look at what you’ve just written. Did you discover something fresh to bring back to the original piece? Or do you have the start of something new?

You can also apply this exercise to a piece of current writing—one that’s not going so well! You know the one. It might be a chapter or a paper for school. Maybe it’s half-finished, but you don’t have the will to keep going. Or maybe it’s “done,” but you’re not sure you’ve gotten to the heart of the matter.

In WRITING WITH POWER, writing teacher Peter Elbow talks about the “center of gravity” of a piece of writing. When you’ve got a piece that’s flagging—seems underdeveloped, unfinished, unfulfilled in its potential—he suggests we ask these questions: “What do you sense as the source of energy, the focal point, the seedbed, the generative center for this piece?” Chances are good the “center of gravity” won’t be what we consider the main point of the piece—that’s why we’ve practiced feeling into particularly compelling images, phrases, and ideas.

Professional writers often develop previously written, even previously published, material. A short story may be expanded into a novel, or an article might become a book-length memoir or biography. For (fabulous!) example, Susan Orlean’s THE ORCHID THIEF was originally an article for THE NEW YORKER, titled “Orchid Fever.” 


Thanks to Annie Spratt for use of her garden photo.

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