Personal Musings

Where Do You Come Up With Ideas To Write About?

I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now and was wondering where you come up with the ideas you write about? I was thinking of starting a blog but find I can’t think of anything to say once I sit down. I just go blank. I end up staring at a blank screen, never write more than a few sentences, and eventually get up and leave out of frustration.

Aaron from Topeka


Well, Aaron from Topeka, here’s what I have to say on the subject. First, I am loathe to give writing advice. Not because writing advice can’t be helpful. It can. But if you’ll allow me to get something off my chest before I answer, I would say the vast majority of writing advice that litters the Internet is bullspit of the highest order. It creates a paralysis before the page by making writing more complicated than it is.

I wrote about why I think that is ad nauseam — hint, hint: someone has an agenda — in the essay “Blogging Isn’t Dead,” so I won’t jump down that rabbit hole again. If you get a minute, check it out. It’s relevant to your question, as are these essays:


With that said, if I were to give a single piece of advice, it is this: just write. That’s it. Just write. Sit down and start writing what comes to mind. Talk to yourself. Interview yourself. Self-interviews are a goldmine. Write down the observations of your day, even if your day, to you, feels boring or repetitive. This is your material. What you’ll come to realize when you do this is you transform into a keen observer of every day life instinctively. Instead of every waking moment being a near subconscious wandering, you turn into an active participant minute-by-minute.

Have you been to the grocery store this week? I guarantee you something happened there if you were a keen enough observer. What song was playing on the speakers as you shopped? Was it a song you remember from childhood or was it a more recent song, played entirely too loud across the aisles, that made you forget to grab the bread. All that deli ham and turkey and you forget the bread.

That’s your story: you went into the grocery store to get lunch meat and bread and because that song a) reminded you of childhood or b) annoyed the daylights out of you, you forget to pick up the damn bread. Now you can’t make a sandwich. You can make a handwich, but not a sandwich.

That’s relatable, and honestly, it’s the only way I’ve snatched the eyeballs I have on my blog over time. I write about ordinary happenings. That’s where I come up with the ideas for my stories and essays. Your average, ordinary day. Maybe my wife said something odd or my mom texted me or a driver in a gray minivan almost ran me over while I was taking a leisurely family walk and now I envision tossing a tire spike strip out in the road in front of their front axle. That sort of thing.

People relate to the relatable. That’s obvious. But we’ve been led to believe, through books, film, and the news media, that what people care about is drama and conflict, trauma and tragedy. I’m not saying you should ignore writing about serious topics. I’ve written my fair share. But is it representative of your life as a whole? If not, why paint a picture it is?


Back to the grocery store. I went grocery shopping two days ago. I didn’t forget the bread, but while I was in check-out, the guy at the register said to me, “Did you know cats drink coffee?” Then he relays a story to me about how his buddy left his coffee cup on an end table when he walked into another room. When he returned, the kittens were dipping their paws in the coffee and licking it off.

I understand full well there are people who couldn’t give two fudgesicles about this story. But I was glad he shared it. He could’ve just asked me whether I wanted “paper or plastic,” rung up my groceries, and off I went on my way. But he didn’t, and because he didn’t, I left the grocery store with a visual in my head of kittens taking turns dipping their paws into coffee, presumably for the half and half, then bouncing off the walls because now they are hyper-caffeinated. I see Mama Cat exhausted by their antics; but like all cats, casually walking away and hopping up on top of the couch cushion for a nap because she’s a cat and cats don’t give a s—t.

When I see this cashier’s line open when I go grocery shopping, I always go to him. Why? Because I like his perspective on life even though he overfills my bag and places the milk on top of the bread sometimes. He pays attention to the little things in life that make life more enjoyable. He’s not complaining. He’s not begrudgingly doing his job. He’s in the moment.

If he were a writer, and for all I know he is in his spare time, I’d absolutely read everything he writes.


Sticking with the grocery store theme here. Fifteen minutes before that, while I was standing in an aisle holding up a bottle of Woebler’s horseradish sauce, contemplating whether to drop it into my cart or not, a man strolls by me pushing his own shopping cart and says, “Get it. You won’t be disappointed. It’s got a kick.”

And sure, yeah, you can think, “Well, that’s not much of a story” and you’d be right. But the thing about writing, just writing — that simple act — is now, here I am at my house in front of my keyboard writing about grocery shopping and another memory from years ago pops into my head.

Remember how I asked what song was playing earlier? A few years ago, I was in this same grocery store, the same aisle with the horseradish sauce, and the Mariah Carey song “Always Be My Baby” starts playing, and there’s this sort of inside joke my friend Josh Holt and I have about that song. We’ve been friends since childhood. He was born in October 1980. I was born October 1981.

“Always Be My Baby” came out in 1996. I didn’t listen to pop music then. Pop music, Top 40 hits especially, had long been in my rearview. But you can’t escape pop culture completely, no matter how hard you try. This was during the height of our formative years in terms of music: punk, grunge, alternative, ska. We’d been talking about starting a rock band for years and it was finally shaking out the way we had planned. Josh and Dwayne grew long hair, as did John Howard. I tried, but my hair doesn’t grow down. It grows up and out like a mad scientist or the drummer from the Jimi Hendrix Experience circa 1968, Mitch Mitchell.

One evening after school, Josh is at my house and the TV is on and the music video for “Always Be My Baby” starts playing. Mariah Carey is going back and forth on a tire swing at nighttime above a lake or river or some other type of body of water while singing. And I can’t remember which one of us said it first, but someone uttered, “You know, this isn’t a bad song” and the other responded, “Yeah, I kind of like it. I can’t lie” and then the other says, “Yeah, I do, too. I just didn’t want to be the first to say it out loud.”

Flash forward twenty-five years into the future. I’m pushing my shopping cart down the aisle at the grocery store and “Always Be My Baby” comes on. I text Josh a gif of Mariah Carey swinging back and forth on the tire swing with the message, “I’m grocery shopping and our jam is on” and he replies with a text version of the humming section within the song:

Do do doop dum
Do do doop do doop da dum

Mariah Carey, Always Be My Baby

From there, I could go in a million different directions writing because there’s this influx of memories firing off in my head dating back to that time in my life.


That’s why my advice for writing amounts to two words and two words alone: just write. Forget anything and everything you’ve ever read that has the title “Ten tips for writing…” It’s hogwash. It’s setting parameters you don’t need to set unless you’re working on a novel or full length book. When you just write, you connect dots and unearth memories that lead to other memories that lead to other memories.

If the process is fun, you won’t find yourself staring at a blank screen terribly long. The frustration will cease to exist. You’ll just start writing and find you can’t stop. When the rhythm is right, you might even smile or laugh. I tend to laugh out loud, or at least chuckle, when I write. Life on this rock floating through space we call Earth can be absurd and the moments of absurdity are plentiful. Write about that. Write about anything. Everything. Just write.

Does that answer your question? Now, who has that Mariah Carey song stuck in their head?

// raises hand //

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