Developing ideas in writing.
Developing ideas in writing. — Lee Smith
Ideas come from a lot of directions and in great quantities.
Question: Well then how come I need one and I don’t have one right now?
You’ve had a lot of ideas today and you didn’t stop to collect them. Writing is the process of taking these ideas and developing them into something that others would like to read about. Having ideas means recognizing ideas as they pass by. Writing is ideas made solid. Ideas begin as emotions. Words, sounds, sights, and smells generate emotions, some large, some small. The writer takes the emotion and makes it available for someone else to participate in by generating words in interesting combinations.
Someone might say that words are sounds, and, therefore, ordinary sounds and words should be combined. But words are distinguished from ordinary sounds here, because they carry additional and more complex meanings and emotions in symbolic form.
The skill of the writer comes in when she separates those emitters (emotion emitters: words, sounds, sights, and smells) that have special meaning to her alone from those that will touch everyone, and are therefore useful. The writer fails when she has not gained the empathy to recognize what belongs to her only and what belongs to humanity in general. To make it more clear: If at an early age, the writer was given candy and then molested, the smell and taste of candy may have a different meaning for her, and she must be wise enough to recognize that.
Ideas came to you many times today and you passed them by because your mind was on other things. You saw a pair of sneakers tied at the laces and hanging from an overhead electric cable; what can you make of that? Look deeply, who threw them up there? Was he angry, happy, sad, doing bad things, doing good things? Apply the experiences of your own life both felt and observed.
A box was delivered to your door. It had the ski socks you ordered from L. L. Bean. But it didn’t have to have ski socks in it. That was merely reality. Picture the box sitting there inside the hallway or between your storm door and your door or sticking half out of your mailbox. What was really in it?
Once upon a time there was a little man who rode the train home from work along with a million other people on trains all over the world. Along with the million other people, he gazed out of the window in a reverie and watched the tenement houses bordering the railroad tracks go by. Along with half of those million other people, this little man noticed that the tenement houses seemed to be even narrower when the train traveled at full speed. Along with a very few of his fellow passengers all over the world, he believed what his eyes told him: that in some sense the houses were narrower when the train traveled at top speed. Alone, the little man thought hard and finally wrote about it. The little man was Albert Einstein. He saw the same things that others saw, but he extracted a different more useful meaning.
Not all that look, really see. Train yourself to see other, deeper things. Train yourself to see as a child.
You saw an old abandoned car or truck today rusting, drained, like an old man who has worked his piece and now all that is seen is his uselessness, not the day when he waded in with the rest and the water ran red.
You read about a kidney transplant today. The woman who received it looked kind of old in her picture. Isn’t there a young person somewhere badly in need of that same kidney? What can you make of that?
Take up your family album. This is always a rich source of idea emitters. Let’s turn Uncle Mort into a murder? That’s always fun. Of course, we love dear old Uncle Mort. But, for know, take a close look at that devilish smile. His wife left him years ago, didn’t she? Never heard from again, they say. Yeah. Right. Well, small damned wonder. Probably put her body in the trunk of that ’53 Buick he’s leaning against. Gee, I know all about that whole area. I could describe– The fourth street dump, remember that? Of course! No! No! Now wait a minute. Suppose the police thought that too and they arrested and him and ultimately he was convicted and then hanged and, and then they found his wife in a convent or an asylum. Or, Or he was taking the fall for his wife who did something bad and that’s why she disappeared and he never told on her to his dying day! Dear old Uncle Mort, what a guy!
What can you build out of ordinary things?
A secret: What happens to old prostitutes? Do they eventually marry and have children? Do they tell their children what they did for a living? Suppose they didn’t and the child met and became friends with an old customer of hers?
A secret: Secrets are good writing stuff. Suppose a man killed another man in his younger days. It was an accident; they were fighting and the one man fell and cracked his head. Let’s say the man buried the man he killed and even though a great hunt went on at the time they never found him. And now, 20 years later, he notices that there is earth-moving equipment working in the field where he buried his victim. There’s going to be a housing development put in. And, And lets say he could never find his wallet the next morning after the fight. Secrets.
Read good books. Tell the story from another perspective. Tell the story of the Mutiny on the Bounty from the captain’s viewpoint. When he gets back to England, after a daunting danger filled trip, they find and hang the mutineers. That one might have been told already, but you get the point. Good old story, another perspective, another time in history.
The newspapers are filled with stories that could use your special twist.
The essence is to take a seed thought or emotion and build on it. Break it down. Find a better direction. Build it up again like we did with Uncle Mort.
There is also a matter of scale. There doesn’t have to be bodies or prostitutes or robberies. Stories can be made from smaller things. The only rule is that there has to be a problem central to the story. Will Cousin April make it home for Easter this year? Since she is a nun (we just made it so in our imagination) this could be bad, but it could be good. This takes even greater storytelling skill because the storyteller must develop the tension with contrast and every technique at his disposal. It isn’t built in like the discovered corpse. Suppose that box wasn’t from L. L. Bean. Suppose it was from your friend in California. Suppose it is a set of towels from her hope chest. Why? Why is she giving away the things in her hope chest? Take a seed and roll it around.
Collect interesting pictures from magazines. When you need an idea go through the pictures slowly. The same picture can provide the seed for a thousand stories.
Ideas are all around you. Become still, and see what you see.