If you believe great ideas come in a sudden flash and offer themselves complete down to the last detail you might be in for a shock.
We cannot prevent birds from flying over our heads, but we can keep them from making nests on top of our heads.
Similarly, bad thoughts sometimes appear in our mind, but we can choose whether we allow them to live there, to create a nest for themselves, and to breed evil deeds.
I read this quote some days ago. I found it in Tolstoy’s Path of Life, but the quote itself is attributed to Martin Luther.
Be that as it may, this quote made me think about ideas and productivity from a writer’s point of view.
In fact, while it’s is true that occasionally writers experience the dreaded writer’s block, it’s also true that in general any self-respecting writer has the opposite problem. I mean, like the birds of the quotes, ideas keep flying over our heads and trying to make a home for themselves right there.
As a result a writer’s biggest problem should have to do with choosing the best idea to work on, not with having an idea at all.
This looks like a sensible and logical conclusion. But in my experience also this take on the creative process is limited. In fact of the many ideas we come up with, most are viable ones, and innumerable are so decidedly promising.
Really, the revolutionary idea that strikes all of a sudden and presents itself completely formed is rare. So rare indeed that if artists waited for such kind of eureka moments to strike, most of the art ever produced would have never seen the light of the day.
Great ideas and not so great ones – in the eye of the beholder
More often than not what makes a book a great one isn’t the inherent quality of the idea striking the author.
Rather, it’s the willingness of such an author to single out the idea and work hard on it to exploit it as fully as possible. It’s his or her willingness to toy and rearrange the details of the idea in such a way as to make it as personal as possible.
Indeed, like pretty much everything else in life, it’s when we pay close attention to what we’re looking at that we discover the world we live in is not made of appearances and stereotypes but of vibrant instances of uniqueness.
Just think of your spouse. Or of your best friend.
Look closely at her (or at him) and you’ll discover that day after day her face changes constantly. Of course, it seems to change only in marginal ways, but it’s precisely those marginal ways that tell us the whole story.
On one day, the skin is luminous and pink. Then on another day it is oily, or maybe pale. The eyes can be lively and full of mischief, they can be round and smiling, or bloodshot and half closed.
Yet we often don’t look at our spouse directly, we see her through the veils of superimposed stereotypes, and so we end up not noticing, or noticing with a bewildering delay, that her smile is distant, or that in her voice there’s an edge of nervousness.
If this happens with the people we live with and love most, just think of the degree of blindness we can suffer from when it comes to really looking at the world at large.
The arrow of time
As a matter of fact, we submit ideas to the same kind of mistreatment. Many of them have the potential to turn into compelling stories. But we don’t really look at them. We look at the already stereotyped versions of them, the ones we know of. So we end up discarding them.
Instead in most cases what we really need is to choose one of those ideas and work hard on it to make it shine of a different light.
For example, take a concept as simple as that of escaping. We have many books and films all offering their tackle on such a subject.
The great escape (1964)
The Shawshank Redemption (1994 film adptation)
Chicken Run (2000)
Misery (1990 film adaptation)
These four titles should make it clear that an idea is just like a seed. At first sight they are all the same. But just like a seed needs nurturing and time to sprout and grow, ideas too need time and commitment to grow into refreshing new stories.
As an experiment I’ve toyed with the idea of escape in real time for this post.
So, what if this escape idea were about the way a terminally ill woman finds a way to free herself from her illness?
The way to flee, to escape could be represented by memory, or music. Also death is a way to escape. And what about neurosurgery?
For example, what if such neurosurgery triggered a sort of total-recall ability in the brain of the protagonist? So much so that while laying in a coma she is in reality retracing her whole life in the attempt to identify the moment her illness began?
And what if she planned to change the course of her illness with an act of sheer will? Right there at the very beginning?
And what if in parallel with her retracing his husband were battling with doctors, who want to pull the plug and let her die?
In this way I could have two parallel sequences. One of the comatose woman who relives her life. The other of the battle her husband fights to prevent doctors from pulling the plug and let her die.
The ending could show the doctors ultimately having their way. But then the moment the plug is pulled the woman keeps living. In fact she even manages to wake from her coma. And the two of them are reunited for a few minutes.
Then they kiss for the last time, and she dies. Because the great escape was ultimately that. Finding the strength to get back to her beloved to tell him goodbye and renew their love one final time.
Seeds of creativity and love tokens
Escape. Unattended it’s a banal idea, sure. But it’s as banal as any other idea. Yet if we choose to focus on it long enough, if we pay attention and work on it and examine it and let it speak to us, we can find that almost no idea is a bad idea.
And paradoxically, this is why writing can be so difficult at times. Because if you truly want to write something that isn’t purely derivative there’s no way around it. Ideas need to be grown and tended to with true love if they are to bloom into great stories.