Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Water Water

If you follow my Twitter feed — and really, why wouldn’t you? — then you might have seen this dispatch from the corner of gratitude and horror:

That note of panic is only partly for comedic effect. I’m trying to get at something that is, for me, the central and ongoing crisis of the writing life: How to respond when confronted with an Idea.
“Where do you get your ideas?” is every writer’s least-favorite question — not because it’s a dumb question, but because it’s the wrong question. Ideas are everywhere, as cheap and plentiful as water. And they are, in themselves, quite useless. A man with a bomb in his head; that’s an idea. A painting of a street scene that acts as a spatial portal to that street; that’s another idea. But they’re not stories, either of them.

Ideas, like water, are the river flowing beneath our fictions, the current moving them along. What makes a story is what we construct on top of that flowing stream. It might be a raft or a ship to follow the current where it leads, or it may be a water wheel or mill to capture the force of the flow and turn it to other ends.

If the idea is very strong, or the story is very short, or both, your contruction may be almost insubstantial. Look at Hemingway’s famous six-word story:

FOR SALE: Baby shoes, never worn.
Or Alan Moore’s:
time machine. Somehow, I’d invented a

Or a story by Larry Niven, which read in its entirety:

There are some things that man was not meant to know.
Or the famous
The last man on earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door.

In all of these, the writer’s construction is like a cunningly-folded origami boat; tiny, perfect, delicate. The care and craft are apparent, but they were never built to last.

So the right question is, “How do you decide what to do with an idea?” And for that, there’s no one answer. Sometimes the form of the structure is implicit in the idea itself, and with practice, I think, you get better at recognizing which ideas are waterfalls and which one are raindrops.

But you can’t always tell at first. And free-writing, interrogation of concept, research — these are all tools to help you. They’re nothing cunning or crafted, in themselves: Notionally speaking, they are nothing but a stick that you use to poke your idea.

Poking your idea with a stick can give you some idea of how deep it is, of how strong its currents might be. And just as when you put your straight stick in water it appears crooked and distorted, the process of inquiry tells you how and in what interesting directions your story might bend and break.

And that’s when things get really interesting.

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