How to Prime the Pump


I tell my writing students that the magic word is BIC: Butt in Chair, or for those who faint at the thought of using the B word, try: bottom, backside, behind, or  buhunkus. Then get off your fainting couch and get to work.

Of course, just staring at the piece of paper or the empty computer screen while you sit BIC may be as big a hindrance to creativity as cleaning house. And your house won’t get clean either.

So here are three ways I prime the pump, daily rituals that help me write more. And as I have almost 400 books out at this writing, from children’s picture books to an adult short story collection, and everything in-between, I may have some expertise in these matters.

1: write a poem a day and send it out to about 1,000 subscribers

The poems range from children’s verse to heartfelt poems about my late husband, or love poems to my new husband after 15 years a widow. Or I write verse snatched from the information in scientific journals, to parodies of Emily Dickinson, and even political rants. My subscribers never know what to expect—but then, neither do I.

I get several gifts , from this daily exercise—it wakes my brain and fingers up. I have the start of some good poems (certainly not all are good) which I revise for weeks even months till I send the ones I still like to poetry journals, magazines and quarterlies. I had nine different poems taken this month already by three separate journals, plus an anthology.

Secondarily, I sometimes find that a new poem wants desperately to break out into a children’s picture book. Or a single poem morphs in the next few months into a bunch of poems on the same subject—the beginning of a book of poetry. And sometimes (rare but it has happened) a poem turns into an essay, a short story, even a novel.

So—if you want to sign up for the poem-a-day, use this link:

Cost to the subscriber? At month’s end either borrow a book of mine from the library or purchase one at your local Indie bookstore.

2: Go outside and find an idea. Wherever you live, there will be ideas littering the place, just waiting for you to pick them up.

As I write this, I’m in Scotland, in a wonderful Arts & Crafts house called Wayside. Let’s walk into the garden. The air is bracing. There is a small sea mist called a haar marching across the garden. Slowly, it obscures the rose arbor (called a pergola here); the stand of bright red poppies are cloaked in grey. (Yep, that’s how they spell gray hereabouts.) A rabbit, as grey as the haar disappears. The magpies have stopped arguing. The cushet doos—what we call pigeons or doves—nest quietly, secure in their grey disguise.

And I have found 4 new ideas. One is a poem about the haar. You can already begin to read it in the description above. The second a picture book about the fog rolling in, but as it might look/feel in different countries.

The third is about a boy and his best friend, or a pair of girl twins who walk out the back door into the garden and disappear into another world, another century, sort of Phillippa Gregory’s TOM’S MDNIGHT GARDEN but with a different, modern twist.

The fourth idea is the start of a song. (Yeah, I am in a band!)


The Haar rolls in, its muffled voice

Sings a song of protest, choice,

It offers hope, where none has been

A signal that we might yet win.

Lean left.


Okay I can’t promise any of that will work, or any will be sold to a publisher, or sung by my band. But I am priming the pump, making sure I’m ready for the right idea to find me, tap me on the shoulder, lie down and cuddle in my lap.

3. Observe and Listen

The third possibility takes you a bit further afield. Go to a coffee shop, grocery store, doctor’s office, sit on a bus or train. While you are there, listen in on other people’s conversations. Take notes. Write down descriptions of those sitting near you. Listen to the cadences of their voices. You are assembling a cast of characters even while you indulge in a doughnut, or check your map, or ostensibly gaze out the window.

You may not yet have the book for those characters to, but by becoming an inveterate people-watcher, you are making sure to store those faces, conversations, arguments in your mental database.  Then when you most need them, when you are actually BIC, they will be there.