A GUIDE FOR THE DESPAIRING WRITER
By Shalanna Collins
When asked (for what must have been the billionth time) "Where do you get all your crazy ideas?" Harlan Ellison reportedly said, "From a crazy-idea factory in Hoboken." Others say there's a mail-order catalog source. A few writers are likely to retort, "I wish I knew! I'd go right back and get some more!"
But there are those of us who feel there just aren't enough years in a lifetime to write all the novels that we'd like to finish. (Although we'd also say, like Woody Allen, "I don't really want to live forever through my work. I want to live forever by not dying.") We're filled with story ideas that just keep coming, and we despair of having enough time to work on them all, to keep them alive and exciting in the backs of our minds or notebooks until the current project is complete. What's our secret--if there is one?
There's a secret to it, all right--but it's not so secret. It's nothing more than learning to recognize and cherish the great ideas that bombard us every day from all corners, and being unashamed of writing them down, no matter where you happen to be. You can learn to preserve and use all those story ideas that escape your notice every day, but you must be methodical and persistent. I suggest using four steps to uncloak the mystery of finding those story ideas and then to conjure the courage to put the plan into practice. I write fiction, but the same method could be applied to finding article topics.
1. Don't buy the hype. The act of creation only seems esoteric and mysterious to us because it has so often been advertised that way by instructors (and reinforced by the eccentric film and television portrayals of creative people.) It seems that unless you experience some magical "inspiration" all at once, you aren't being creative. Everything has to leap forth fully formed like Athene from the mind of Zeus, and it must be as dazzling as "Creation," the Sistine Chapel fresco with God's hand touching man's, or it's not Art. No second try with that slab of marble: you carve it right the first time. No wonder that's daunting to many people, who think (or have been told by educators--professional educators, who "must know what they're talking about") that they're "not creative." Unlike being not-female or not-Chinese-Irish, this is more a state of mind than a permanent condition.
Sometimes the spontaneous Song from the Muse does fill my ears, and when it does happen, it's wonderful. (Often it's Thalia, in charge of comedy.) But the rest of the time, it's more practical for the working writer to remember what Einstein said: all great inventions result from 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. Creating a novel, poem, story, or essay "out of nothing" is a fantastic accomplishment, whether or not it ever sees print. It seems weird, extraordinary, difficult, tiring, an act of God (though I'm not saying it isn't all of these--at least just a little). It's something that could never happen to you. . . .
Not unless you let it.
I might compare the way I come up with a story or story idea to with the mundane act of deciding whether to ring a doorbell. First I hesitate on behalf of the people inside: should I bother them? Shouldn't I have called first? What if I'm interrupting something? My fingertip goes slowly forward; hesitantly, I touch the bell. But, at last, there's a moment of heedless courage when I experience the flash of decision--Just do it now!--a moment when I give myself permission to reach out and BEGIN.
I have to be typing or penning something--anything; a shopping list, titles of books to read, baby names--before I can hope to capture those ideas. Sit before that blank page. The idea is coming--give yourself permission to freewrite, to succeed, to fail, or just to amuse yourself. First nothing's there but the "ether"; then, all of a sudden, a phrase, scene, or situation is ready. What if. . . that old man sitting on his front porch as I drive home every evening were really a spy in disguise? . . . a visitor from another planet? . . . a Nazi war criminal, still in hiding? Has he ever left this little town? Will he ever? Does he sit there all day, just watching? Or waiting for someone? Anyone in particular, or would I do? Hundreds of possible ideas could come out of this "I wonder." Yet most of us would dismiss it all with, "But it's been done. I can't do anything new with that idea."
Don't extend that thought to its concluding absurdity, saying that, since "there is nothing new under the sun," you couldn't possibly invent a different slant on it. You are a new and unique person. Start typing. You can always recycle the "good parts" later on if it doesn't work out; at least you'll have something. To get started, type out one sentence out of a newspaper article, a joke told on the elevator, a chance remark you overheard down the hall at the copier. If it's written down and allowed to germinate, to change, to percolate through the wrinkles in the gray matter, it can become the basis of a short story; inspire a scene, character, thematic idea, or some other part of a novel; or even lead to an article like this one.
Hope your family and friends aren't as nosy as mine. But if they are. . . .
2. Start today. I used to put off everything so long that by the time I was ready to start writing it, either the deadline had passed or the freshness of the idea was just completely gone. It was dead, and it was like trying to make grass cuttings into a fragrant lawn full of interesting bugs: it just wouldn't work. So don't let it all get away. Let the stream of words flow freely now and edit later. Make time today for those things that have set you aflame.
This is the simplest of the four rules, but so often it is the one ignored. "When I get the time. . ." can turn into "if I'd only used my time" before you realize it. Remember the doorbell analogy: there's no catalyst but yourself. Set the alarm for 3 AM and write for those hours before work. Do whatever it takes. How badly do you want to write? Or do you just fantasize about having written a bestseller, without desiring the act of creation itself?
Nobody will remember tomorrow whether you vacuumed the carpeting or folded the towels. Possibly not even in two hours, after the kids have tracked in mud and the cat has made a bed out of the laundry basket. But your writing has the potential to speak to future generations and give you literary immortality. Which is more important?
3. WRITE things DOWN! Somewhere, right when you find them. You might have the germ of an idea that you think you'd never forget, but if you don't write it down right away, it is gone. Even if you're working on something else at the time, you must record these ideas. Once I kept a little notepad in my purse on which to jot down these things, but I'm ashamed to say that, after many scuffles with the family (who would steal it for phone messages, or just read it and snicker), I changed my methods. I think I invented coded speedwriting after the morning my husband announced to the contents of a crowded van pool, "What do you mean by, 'She's all over me like baby poop?' We don't even have a baby." (He had read one of the "interesting colloquialisms" I'd recorded for later use.) In fact, I used that line of dialogue as the first line of a short story for young people; eventually, it was "tightened" out, but it had started the whole thought process that led to the story "Mademoiselle Kate."
It would've been even worse had he found the list of elf names for my fantasy trilogy. Trust me on this one.
These days, I also hide gems like these electronically: they reside on my computer's disk in word processing files I name sequentially, such as "Ideas.001" (and .002, .003, etc.) When I'm driving, I also write ideas on Post-Its™ and stick them in the zippered pocket of my purse. (I pull over first.) They survive the trip back to the computer much more often this way.
Actually, you probably shouldn't even let the wrong person read the first draft of your pieces. It can be quite uncomfortable if while they're reading your story thinking it's them in the bad guy mode and you were about to ask them to please do the laundry. There are many people who won't comprehend (or can't handle) your subject matter, and can ruin your story in its incubation stages--before the caterpillar has unveiled its gossamer butterfly wings, if you will, or has at least turned into a moth, if such be its destiny. I once experienced a terrific scene when my mother read some stuff I'd left lying on the sofa by mistake after a full night of editing:
"Where in the world are you going to send these crazy stories?!" she yelled in exasperation, waving a sheaf of papers as I walked in bleary-eyed (this was before breakfast, and normally I don't get up before eleven unless it's Christmas morning and I heard reindeer on the roof the previous night; I don't even see in color until noon.) "Like this one about the two LDS missionaries who walk in on the meeting of the snake-handlers' church. You can't exactly send this one in to the Baptist Standard!"
"Relax," I said. "I'm working on a novel."
This sent her into a serious vale of tears, as she apparently had hoped to hear I had an interview at Penneys that afternoon. "Get a real job!" I could hear her moaning through her sobs.
This ugly scene could have been avoided if only I had kept those early drafts out of sight. And, please, don't ask people who don't read for pleasure to read your work! If they can't be amused by anything that moves slower than MTV on fast-forward crack-cocaine speed, how can you expect them to give you any helpful feedback on the romantic beginning of your historical novel set in Italy during the Renaissance? Most of your co-workers, unless you know them to be leisure-time readers, will develop the attention span of a three-year-old when confronted with a sheaf of boring old manuscript pages. They are the types who walk into your living room where the bookshelves are and exclaim in astonishment, "Have you really read all these books?!" And they're serious. Trust me on this one, too.
4. Don't waste it on "telling" or kill it with over-research. These two are insidious. I've been so excited about some of my ideas that I rushed right out at lunchtime and blabbed the whole storyline to shocked or appalled co-workers. DON'T do it. If they don't completely discourage you with their complete apathy ("Uh-huh. What?" "That's nice, dear," or maybe "Aw, mom! I'm trying to watch TV"), they'll either think you're strange, or they will pick away at flaws in the unformed idea as if they were helping rid you of an old scab on your knee, so fiercely that you go away thinking your great idea was completely stupid.
Also beware of the allure of endless research. (Don't we all love libraries?) You may find you need to ask a question of someone who knows about snakes or plumbing or whatever (this is called either an "interview" or an "imposition," depending on your viewpoint), but be careful. For example, say you need to ask a computer whiz whether, when you delete a file on a certain type of PC, the file is actually erased, or is just marked for deletion later. Your fictional detective needs to "undelete" a file to catch the killer. and you need to put it on the proper computer I'm not telling you that if you have a difficult part in a tale that you shouldn't go to an expert and ask, but I don't recommend you let on that "it's for a story." (Asking is the lazy way out, because everybody knows you should really research this in the library--but I try to stay away from the library during months in which I hope to get some work done; they appreciate it, too, because then someone else has a chance to check out some books.)
Go ahead: ask your expert--how about that co-worker who happens to be an enthusiastic computer hobbyist?--those enticing leading questions. Only keep the reasons for asking to yourself. Just imply (in the perennial student's famously vague and preoccupied way) that you need to know the answers for school or work--a research paper, or something; match the reason to what you think the person being questioned would consider "worthwhile" (translation: "real work"). Not everyone is willing to answer questions if you let it be known that you ask because you're writing a story: to many, that's an open invitation for them to start asking you about your publication credits or to start laughing because you are "wasting your time with that." There are so many ways to flatter a person with a question that you should have no trouble getting an enjoyable ten-minute lecture on the subject, if you have chosen your teacher properly.
If you ever had parents, you already know how to do this. My mom, for example, has little time for novel-writers and story-crafters, but will drop anything to tell you all about (any one of her diverse areas of expertise, such as) wallpaper hanging or bread baking or finding the area under a curve or what Hamlet's tragic flaw is--if she thinks it's for something "legitimate" like a term paper, a book report, your continuing education class, or (in my case) if you've really changed your lazy ways and are ready to learn homemaking at last, after all! You know how to do similar "adjustments" to the truth without exactly lying--after all, you will take that college course one day, won't you? If not, you're a writer--use your imagination. Once you know so much you're sick of the entire subject (or when your hidden tape recorder runs out of tape), thank your helper. Then smile enigmatically.
And don't do all the research up front; just circle or underscore the facts you need to check, and continue with the flow of the words. After all, how do you know you won't edit that out before you need to know whether all flamingoes are the same shade of flamingo pink? (They aren't.) Then you know all the things you'll need to find out about after the first rough draft is finished. I know research can be slightly embarrassing. In fact, I'm known around my workplace and my neighborhood as a nice but slightly eccentric person who's apt to pipe up after church, "Does anybody know the easiest way to pluck a chicken?" But they're used to me now.
As a result of my bravura and curiosity, I've learned even stranger things than that. I can't spend any more time discussing it, though, because now that I've given the secret away, it's working for me again. I can't wait another moment to begin the tale of the little girl who just appeared in the doorway of my imagination, and said, "Come quickly! I need to show you something. . . ."
With my finger on the proverbial doorbell, I begin to write.