How to Recycle a Previous Writing Topic
As writers, the world provides us with a nearly limitless supply of potential topics. However, one can’t be an expert in all of them. Therefore, we sometimes find ourselves running out of things to write credibly about, and creative block begins to set in.
At that point, we might receive the following advice from top writers.
It’s often easier to recycle an old topic, and write about it again from a different perspective, than it is to find a new one.
To get some inspiration on how to do that, let’s take a look at the mindset of American inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847–1931).
Edison was one of the most prolific inventors in United States history, holding more than 1000 U.S. patents as well as patents in other countries. He was a successful businessman as well, incorporating over 100 businesses. The quadruplex telegraph, the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, the carbon telephone transmitter, and the Kinetograph motion picture camera were all devices Edison either invented or improved.
The reason Edison was such a successful inventor was that he was able to take a problem and examine it from all angles — including angles no one else thought of. Let’s take a look at Edison’s thought process and examine how we might incorporate it into a writing idea machine.
Edison’s great train ride
The solar eclipse of July 29, 1878 was a particularly important one. By that time scientists had been able to pinpoint the exact path eclipses would take. In the late 1800s, solar eclipses were a great opportunity to study the sun and learn more about its makeup. When scientists projected the path of the 1878 eclipse from Montana through Texas, many of them boarded trains to the Rocky Mountains to get a look from a higher altitude. Edison, eager to prove he was a scientist as well as an inventor, came along.
Edison asked for the best seat in the house.
Well, not really. He wasn’t in a house. He was traveling on a train.
He asked for the best seat on the train — literally, on the train.
A cowcatcher is the metal grating attached to the front of a train that intercepts obstacles and moves them off the tracks, preventing those objects from colliding head-on with the train. For the 1878 solar eclipse, Edison asked the Union Pacific engineer in charge of the train for permission to ride on the cowcatcher.
The engineers gave Edison a cushion, and every day he rode on the train’s cowcatcher from Omaha to the Sacramento Valley, minus part of the Sierra mountain range which stayed covered in snow even in summer. He took the same ride as the other scientists, yet none of them observed the eclipse quite as Edison did.
What’s your cowcatcher?
“Normality and routine are weak stimuli for creative thinking. A key step to becoming a more creative person is developing habits that help you see things from a different perspective — a non-routine perspective.” — Blaine McCormick, author of At Work with Thomas Edison
Take a topic that you’ve written about in the past, one with which you feel comfortable and feel like you possess a fair amount of expertise. You’ve written about it in the past from the viewpoint of different scientists aboard the train.
Now it’s time to write about it from the cowcatcher!
Let’s say that you write about people who exhibit an avoidant personality type in relationships. That’s a pretty common topic I see on here.
- You’ve written about the relationship from the viewpoint of the avoidant person. That’s the equivalent of the viewpoint of a scientist on Edison’s train.
- You’ve also written about the relationship from the viewpoint of the person who is in it with the avoidant person. That’s the equivalent of the viewpoint of another scientist on the train.
What’s the viewpoint from the cowcatcher?
- You could write from the view of a close mutual friend of both partners in the relationship, explaining what it’s like to watch the avoidant person and their significant other go through this together.
- You could write from the view of the avoidant person’s therapist, or the relationship partner’s therapist.
- You could write from the view of a divorce lawyer, explaining why relationships between a partner who is avoidant and a partner who isn’t often don’t work.
Fiction writers: You especially need to take a ride on the cowcatcher
Fiction is great because the viewpoints are practically unlimited. Let’s take one of the all-time classic scenarios: Cat chases mouse.
- Cat’s viewpoint: Equivalent to that of a scientist on the train
- Mouse’s viewpoint: Equivalent to that of another scientist on the train
What’s the cowcatcher viewpoint? Well, what about the viewpoint of the house in which the cat and mouse reside? Is it happy to have a hole and a crawl space behind its wall that allow the mouse to take refuge? Is it tired of all this drama within its walls and wish the cat would catch the mouse and things would quiet down?
The farther you get outside the box, the better the chance you have of replicating Edison’s inventiveness in your writing — and that may be exactly what it takes for your story to go viral!
Let’s keep in touch! Feel free to sign up for my newsletter. Here’s another article of mine on creativity:
How to Find Creative Inspiration in the Big City
When getting in touch with nature is not an option
McCormick, Blaine, At Work with Thomas Edison: 10 Business Lessons from America’s Greatest Inventor. Entrepreneur Press, 2001.