We begin, appropriately, at the beginning with “The Care and Feeding of Ideas.” Other questions on our ever-growing list include the following:
- "What kind of schedule do you set for yourself and what do you do to keep it going?"
- "What kind of obstacles—external, interpersonal, internal—get in your way and how do you deal with them?"
- "What are the plusses and minuses of collaboration?"
- "You write in so many genres. How come? And what are the pros and cons of doing that?
- "What do you do when you get stuck and can't figure out how to proceed?"
- "When is it time to revise and how do you know?"
- "When is it time to let go?"
- "What are the pros and cons of having/not having an agent?"
- "How do you deal with rejection?"
- "How do you deal with editorial suggestions?"
- "How do you deal with speaking engagements?"
- “How do you feel about being your own P.R. person in this current marketing climate?"
And so on. But now . . .
Here is Sandy to lead off our first discussion for WRITERS AT WORK. The question is a broad one about ideas. Technically, it’s a family of questions. Do we go to our desks every day expecting an idea to greet us there? What do we do when he have a fresh idea to consider? Do we jump in and start writing? Mull it over for a time? In short, let’s talk about the general care and feeding of ideas.
Response 1: Sandy
I do mull over ideas, as long as I possibly can. I have two good reasons: (1) I’m lazy, and ideas aren’t hard work at all if you’re just thinking about them; and (2) the best ideas tend to grow and change and get even better during the mulling time, while the glow fades from the worst ideas and they reveal their inadequacies and slink away.
When everything is going just right for me, I have a lot of projects in various stages of development at once, and I’m working on one while mulling over another. Or more than one other. So it doesn’t matter if something mullable comes to me every day. I’m working on whatever’s most pressing at the moment and making notes—mentally and physically—on something else as the ideas present themselves. New ideas have a way of trying to push to the head of the line when I’m busy working on something else.
But everything doesn’t always go just right! As mentioned, I often mull something over only to discover it’s not worth pursuing. Sad to say, that realization has been known to hold off until I’ve written several drafts. And there are times when nothing is presenting itself at all. It was a great comfort to me to hear Richard Peck say that he has one idea at a time and, while writing his current book, is always quite sure he’ll never write another.
I don’t go to the desk hoping something will happen. Writing doesn’t always happen at the desk anyway. Typing happens at the desk. And when I go to the desk, it’s because I’ve got something planned to do there. That’s why when people ask me if I write every day or how many hours I write, I say “24/7.” They’re thinking hours spent at the keyboard; I’m thinking what goes into the work itself. My whole life! That’s where my ideas come from. It’s all I’ve got. It’s all grist for the mill.
How about you, David?
Response 2: David
I love what you say about new ideas wanting to crowd in at the head of the line. They’re a provocative lot and it’s tempting to let them. A new idea seems fresh, vibrant, filled with hints of brilliance that urge me to forsake all others and set out at once to woo the newbie. When I first started flexing my teeny writer’s muscles, I chased everything that crossed my mind, like a kid swinging his butterfly net in all directions. These days I’m a good deal more selective.
Still, the ideas come. They must. They just don’t always materialize on command or arrive at convenient times or places. I try to keep notepads in places where my ideas seem most prone to hang out: by the shower, in my car, in the bedroom. I often guess wrong and must make do with whatever writing material lies at hand: paper napkins, backs of bills, toilet paper, envelopes.
I also agree with you that good ideas have a longer shelf life than those shallow wannabe notions that flit through the crowd in my head and soon blink off like fireflies with no notion of where they’re going. You speak to the need to pause with an idea long enough to get acquainted and see if it’s sincere or just a kiss-and-run sort of tease.
One way I learn to tell the difference is to jot down a new idea the way it comes to me, keeping it brief but with enough description to help me remember it later when I come back for another look. When I review some of my cryptic notes in my idea files or journals, I have no earthly recollection of what excited me so in the first place. Others, though, are right where I left them, winking as brightly as ever, and I know I have something worth developing to at least the first draft stage.
I see my desk as my office rather than an incubator for ideas. I report to work each morning, coffee in hand, check e-mail from the previous night, make sure the latest blog post is up, reread notes to myself about the day’s tasks, and get started. The funny thing about new ideas is that, like Bo Peep’s sheep, leave them alone and sooner or later they’ll come home.
Now, back to you, Sandy.
Response 3: Sandy
I totally relate to the notepads everywhere—and the random scraps of paper when a notepad can’t be grabbed quickly. I must say I’ve never tried writing on toilet tissue. But I don’t rule it out. So far, my most unusual stand-in for a notepad has been the back of one my son’s Bar Mitzvah invitations.
I also second the motion for writing those notes in enough detail that you recognize the idea when you come back to it. I once found a scrap of paper in my “ideas” file that said, “Laura—brown hair.” I had no memory of having written it, or of anyone named Laura, or of why her brown hair might have been significant. But even this snippet has come in handy, as a prime example of too little information!
It occurred to me when I reread my comments on “mulling” that I’d never mentioned where those ideas come from that I mull. From my life, of course. What else do I have to draw on? But my life is more than just what happens to me directly. What I observe about others counts as part of my personal experience, and that includes what I read about in books and newspapers, what I see on TV and in the movies, what I overhear on subway platforms and in waiting rooms. Whatever the source, the best ideas grow out of things that hit me hard—that frighten, worry, anger, amuse, surprise, intrigue, or fascinate me. Those are the ideas that won’t turn loose until I make something of them and share what I’ve made.
In my book WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS?, I compare writers to oysters and ideas to the grain of sand that gets under an oyster’s shell. The sand irritates the oyster; the oyster deals with that irritation by coating the grain of sand. The result is something others consider beautiful and valuable—a pearl—but for the oyster, it’s relief.
I consider it a good sign when a possible project scares me a little. Or even a lot. That tells me I’m moving beyond my comfort zone and taking on a real challenge rather than playing it safe and repeating myself.
Back to you, David!
Response 4: David
Sandy, we’ve both pointed out how much we rely on the ready presence of pad and pencil to capture those ideas when they appear unannounced. I don’t want to bloody the point, but many a delicious plot, scrap of dialogue, perfect description, or fantastic rhyme has slipped into that murky river of our subconscious and lodged somewhere out of reach—all for the lack of a piece of paper. Some ideas speed off like a hit-and-run driver. When they’re gone, they don’t want to be found.
Today I was refilling my hummingbird feeder. While I stood outside the kitchen, empty container in one hand, teapot of fresh sugar water in the other, a hummingbird materialized beside me. It hovered two feet away, sizing me up and down, while I stood transfixed by my good fortune. When the tiny feathered dart vanished across the yard, I knew I had to capture the moment as quickly as I could return to the kitchen. I did better than make myself a note. I shared it with all of you too. I tell young people that to be a writer they must believe they are a writer, think like a writer, and behave like a writer. Writers love ideas. They feast on them.
They don’t let many good ones get away.
Sandy, this wraps up “The Care and Feeding of Ideas.”
Next month we’ll pose another issue, and it will be my turn to go first. See you then.