Do you ever hold two conflicting, diametrically opposed ideas in your head at the same time? Two things that cannot possibly both be true, and yet you have somehow convinced yourself to believe both of them? I do. Probably more often than I even realize. But two that I’ve been coming to terms with recently are these:
1. Ideas are cheap. They’re easy. They’re malleable and they practically create themselves. They’re disposable, Maggie Stiefvater says. That’s how simple they are.
2. I am bad at them.
Well, if ideas are so easy to come by, if they practically invent and present themselves, then how can I be bad at them? That doesn’t make much sense at all, and yet it’s something I’ve convinced myself is true.So what is the real value of an idea then? I don’t really know, and I’m not in the business of pretending that I have answers when I don’t. But I’ve learned a lot from other people over the years, and I thought this might be a good opportunity to talk about something that I think a lot of writers take for granted.
I know there are people out there, some of them close to me, who find idea-making to be one of the easiest parts of writing. And in some ways, it’s simple for me too. I mean, once I have an idea, I’ve done it. There it is! On the page, a little perfect note. Everything that comes next is the hard part. But how to get that little idea on the page?
For me, over the years, I’ve learned to brainstorm. I’m sure that’s something I did before, when I was in school, for various assignments, but the thing about assignment is that it means you go into a project with a relatively specific direction already in your head. You’re reading Jane Eyre in your English class and you need to write a twenty-page paper on it. Well, to come up with an idea for that, all you have to do is ask yourself what’s interesting to you about Jane Eyre?
That’s harder to do, I find, in life than in English class. What’s interesting to me about life, after all? Pretty much everything, but that doesn’t help me come up with an idea of what to write about.
When I first started out in my MFA program a few years ago, I was so caught up in what I thought I should be writing that I was completely stifled creatively. There was no one to blame but myself. It wasn’t my teachers or my mentor or my peers who were leaning on me to write a certain way. I simply had put so much pressure on myself to do everything right that I wasn’t thinking at all about what I actually wanted to be writing or working on. I was too in my own head about it, and when I tried to think about ideas for stories, I kept landing on the same staid sort of stuff over and over again. I couldn’t open my mind to see other possibilities. It was like there was too much and not enough at the same time, and I was so concerned with creating the proper kind of short story that I couldn’t look beyond the standard box.
Finally, my mentor got pretty point-blank with me, which I desperately needed. He told me that I was in a rut, basically. And he told me something that returns to me in moments of idea crisis, which I still have pretty often. He told me to write something weird.It’s probably not surprising that I had no idea how to do that. All of my ideas were treading the same worn paths. I had no clue how to break out of the pattern that I had made for myself.
But I knew I had to start with an idea. So I took a sticky note, and I just wrote down a handful of random thoughts that came to me in those first few minutes. I did nothing except sit there and try to think of some ideas. I don’t remember most of them now. I think I came up with probably five or six. One of them was “a group of kids dig up a treasure chest in the woods.” I could feel the spark in that one; it was almost physical. Immediately, I started to think about it, about how it could work, about the characters I could build around that one thought.
That was the next short story I turned in, and it couldn’t have been clearer from the jump that I had successfully gotten out of my slump. The story went on to be my first published piece, and two years later, at the end of my MFA program, I was still thinking about it, still dreaming up lives and continuations for the characters. I decided to return to it and make it my first real attempt at a novel since college.
I wrote that novel, revised it, and loved it more than anything I’ve ever written. It’s still the piece of work I’m proudest of, even if nothing else ever happens with it. And all of that came from this single spark, this small flame of inspiration that didn’t birth an idea, but which came out of an idea. The idea came first. Everything else followed.Not only did the idea come first, but the idea was simply one of many. One of several random thoughts jotted onto a little sticky note. All of the other ideas on that little square came to nothing at all. And that’s okay. Ideas are disposable, after all.
So I don’t claim to have all the answers to my own questions about the true value of ideas. It can still be really difficult for me to generate them when I want them. It’s still really easy for me to slip into slumps or ruts where I re-hash the same small pool of ideas over and over again, even when they’re not working for me. I still get caught up in my own thoughts about what I “should” be writing, and I spend weeks, sometimes, working on projects that I don’t actually feel very passionate about at all.
But I’ve learned that at any time, in any mood, I can sit down with a pen and a piece of paper, and I can quickly jot down an idea or two or a half dozen.Sometimes none of them give me that spark of feeling and imagination. Sometimes I just write them and set them aside, and when I return to them later on, I start to see ways I could put them together to build stories out of them.
Maybe I am bad at ideas, in the sense that I have to intentionally set out to make them. They don’t come as easily or as naturally to me as they do to other writers, perhaps. And so maybe it’s inaccurate for me to think of ideas as being easy, or the easiest part of the process. But they are disposable, because sometimes when you have them, you don’t use them at all. And while I would never advocate for writing only when you feel inspired, I think there’s something to be said for finding those ideas that give you that feeling of inspiration, the ideas that spark your imagination, the ones that make you feel passionate about the idea of writing them out and developing them.
Maybe the real value of ideas is merely what you make of them. And the ability to see in them their potential, and to know which ones to invest your time and energy into, because they’re the ideas that make you love what you do.