Shake it up: 10 ways to jump-start your writing—and find inspiration—from Julie Stewart

Julie Stewart (at left) and Butler MFA students and alums 
at the July 12 gathering. Photo by Gerry Justice.

On July 12, 2015, Indianapolis writer Julie Stewart offered an inspiring presentation about her process and craft for Butler MFA students, alums and anyone interested at the Efroymson Center for Creative Writing at Butler University. 

Here are 10 ideas Julie shared.

1.  Make your work a gift.
“Instead of birthday gifts, I send stories,” Julie says. “Give your stories (or poems or essays or novel chapters) to people who you like and who like you. They’ll think they’re great.”

2.  Think big. Then don’t think.
When you start submitting your work, aim high. “Paris Review, not Podunk,” Julie says. Look at where your favorite writers are publishing—there are great lists at the back of anthologies like Best American Short Stories or collections of essays or poetry. Set up your list of places to submit, and start sending out your work. “If rejections come in, don’t give ’em a thought. Just send the piece off to the next publisher on the list.”

 3. Create a parallel universe.
Post-MFA, Julie found herself missing the sense of community she’d had while in school. So she went to visit a friend from the Spalding program. The two tried writing together.

“It was ‘parallel play,’ Julie says. “We were sitting around trying to focus for an hour.” When it was time to go home, Julie’s friend asked: “Do you think we could still do this?”

Now, despite the fact they live in different cities, the two writers write together. They go for walks at the same time. They talk to each other on the phone. Then they sit down and write. “That’s my practice now—to do this walking and writing,” Julie says. It’s not a workshop, but it’s companionship and feedback. “It’s an acknowledgment that I have a reader. Someone is hearing my voice. This is what I love.”

4. Make an idea book.
Here’s the lowdown on Julie’s idea books, which are an important part of her process, especially at the beginning of a project. “I’ve given myself all summer to play in this book,” she says. “I won’t start the actual writing for my new collection till September.”

A. Don’t spend too much money. Buy a coffee table book at a garage sale or Goodwill (Julie got hers for $1).

B. Glue a new title on the front. (Julie’s is a cutout of something her son wrote when he was little.)

C. Make the book a collage. Julie journals on top of the pages of the book. She adds newspaper clippings that interest her. She collages in her kids’ artwork. Then, somehow, ideas start coming together. A story about a swan in a small-town newspaper sparks a theme about invasive species and Trayvon Martin’s killer being let off. “The next thing that pops in my head is all the titles in my next short story collection,” Julie says. “I’ve written this table of contents and things are popping up all over the place now.”

5.  Invest in a writing coach.
 “A couple of years ago, I wrote a check to hire a writing coach,” Julie says. “That was huge.” It’s a good way to take the creative work you’ve done and apply action steps to it. It adds discipline.

6. Write on location.
Not just at Starbucks. To mix things up, take your journal or laptop and write where real things are happening—at a soup kitchen, at a graveyard, in a hospital lobby.

7. Put time before money.
“Grace Paley says ‘Keep your overhead low,’” Julie says. She agrees. Julie doesn’t have a day job, per se. She does what she needs to do to get by, and protects her creative time. “I edit kids’ college essays. I sew and sell aprons. I occasionally work at a women’s dress shop,” Julie says. She doesn’t apply for grants or residencies. Instead she uses all the time she has to focus on her work.

8. Recruit non-writer readers.
“I like to share my stories with people who aren’t writers,” Julie says. “For example: I’m doing a story about domestic abuse and someone who’s trying to get away. I don’t want to be sharing that with writers alone. I want to share it with someone going through a domestic abuse situation.” Readers who are “real people” vs. fellow writers add authenticity and a different perspective on the work.

9. Ask three questions.
At your meetings with writers’ groups or writer friends, keep things simple. Julie and her MFA friends from Spalding meet on the phone and ask each other these three questions:

What are you reading?

What are you writing?

What’s getting in your way?

10. Try this prompt.
One of Julie’s textile pieces, which she showed the group at Butler, is based on scars. “I took inventory of every scar on my body, and wrote it out,” Julie says. She shared this concept as a prompt with the group at Butler. Try it at home!

A. Take an inventory of every scar on your body.

B. Choose one scar and write about it.

Julie Stewart showcased her narrative textiles inspired by personal
scars after attendees wrote about and shared their own scar stories.
About Julie Stewart

Julie Stewart is an artist. She’s a short story writer, yes. But an artist first. She’s a graduate of Spalding University’s low-residency MFA program. On top of writing, she teaches writers of all ages (check out Urban Plot on Facebook). She creates narrative textiles that she hangs from clotheslines. Sometimes she hangs them at farmer’s markets. Sometimes she hangs them at her house. Sometimes she exhibits them at galleries. (She and her work were part of the Binding of Isaac exhibition at the Christian Theological Seminary this spring.) “It’s all geared toward readers and showing them what I’m doing,” she says. Julie’s also a mom or stepmom to seven kids, age 12 to 24, a Great Dane and a flock of chickens. “My stories are my children too,” she says.

Students at the July event enjoyed free pizza from Jockamo Upper Crust Pizza in Irvington (Julie’s neighborhood).