Scrounging for Ideas
by Lee Smith AKA Cornhusk
|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?
We have a lot of writing ideas everyday but most of the time we’re too preoccupied 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 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.
Perhaps 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.
Perhaps 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 who look really see. Train yourself to see other, deeper things. Train yourself to see as a child.
Perhaps 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.
Perhaps 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 now, 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 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 first 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 let’s 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 those pictures slowly. The same picture can provide the seed for a thousand stories.
Using Titles: Good titles are critical and hard to think of. A pretty famous author I know admits that she often makes a story from simply a title. We can injure two birds with one stone here. Try this. First we will build titles without a story. Then we use the title as an idea emitter to build a story, and we have them both: title and story.
Sit by the radio with a notepad. Listen to vocal music that has understandable words. When a phrase strikes your fancy as a good title, write it down. The same thing can be done by reading straight prose, but poetry is even better. Don’t think of the story, only an interesting title. Don’t be too critical. Titles don’t have to make sense just emotion.
Clockwork Orange, The Ticktock Man, Shatterday, Moon River.
Write the whole phrase and strip it to its essentials later. “Send me the pillow that you dream on.” Pillow Dreams.
These are a few that I collected in a half-hour last night.
Look for Tomorrow, Children of Providence, Surefire Pendergrass, Prayers for Bonnie, The Least of These, Sweetly Singing, Choptank Landing, The Silver Tooth Fairy, Hallelujah Hatchet Man, Sour Water Creek, A Light on the Horizon, Four Alarm Sally, While Mortals Sleep, Somebody We Never Heard Of.
Look at those. Use them for emitters. Roll them around between your mental fingers. Turn them upside down. Change them and let the ideas to justify the titles come. Now gather your own titles. Use them if you can and gather more. You’ve got a million of them as someone used to say.
Stories from endings: Endings are hard. It’s a good idea to know the ending before you start a story because writing while searching for one is an unpleasant and difficult experience.
There is a story about a wicked woman, who when her armies were defeated, retreated to the upstairs of her house with all of her servants. The conquering general came down the street on his white charger until he was under her windows and ordered her to come down. Instead she leaned from her window and hurled invectives at the general below. After all, her servants were all around her, and they could fight very well.
“Throw her down here,” the general called up to the window. Whereupon her servants picked her up and hurled her to the streets below.
Work the story backwards asking questions like: How did this scene come to be, and then again, how did that scene come to be? What is the essence of the story? Does the story have to be about olden times? Could it be about political enemies, and the man’s advisors throw him to the wolves to save their own political futures? Could it be about business? Take any interesting ending you ever heard of, give it a new time, new actors, new costumes.
Ideas are all about you. Become still, and see what you see.