Saving ideas and surprising yourself.

I’m sitting in my uncle’s shop, waiting for some car repairs, and pulled out the laptop for some writing time. I have assigned writings to work on, but while creating a new folder for one of these projects, I ran into a one-sentence story idea I’d typed up and left untouched for just over two years. I read it, gave it a moment’s thought, then just started writing. By the time my burst of energy subsided, I’d turned two paragraphs into five pages. It’s a father/daughter story, my first, and working on it today taught me (or at least refreshed me) on two important notes regarding creativity:

Save every idea you have.

Here’s an example of an idea I could have easily deleted by now, or never even written down in the first place. After all, I’ve never been a daughter or a father, nor written a father-daughter story. I tend to write about young boys as protagonist because I’ve been a young boy and I have perspective and philosophy on growing up into manhood. Essentially, this is not the sort of idea I would usually give a chance, but I’m glad it struck me enough to write it down, initially.

I have piles of Post-It notes, scratch paper, notebooks, receipts, and business cards filled with scribbled ideas, dialogue, plot points, images, and characters who at one point I thought may be worth exploring. Many of those, I’ve typed up into long “idea lists,” others like the father/daughter story in question have gotten their own document, while still others linger in the paper piles, hungry for the day I quit being lazy and help them get busy.

If you’re not writing down every idea you have, you’re crippling your creativity. They may not all be winners and they may not all get equal attention, but if you don’t record what strikes you, you’re missing out on a crucial step of your creative process – ideas can come at any time, anywhere, and it’s best to scrawl them down before they dissipate into thin air.

Look, I don’t know if this piece will go anywhere, or if I’ll grow tired of it before it reaches it’s full potential. What I do know is it’s writing-in-practice. It’s me taking an idea I had, giving it a chance, and seeing what happens. I’m not opposed to that.

Let writing surprise you.

I surprised myself three times while writing on this piece – once in storytelling structure, once with characterization, and once in combining two long-nebulous ideas.

I essentially wrote two micro-chapters, meaning they work as chapters to me but should likely be fleshed out more to create full chapters. Again, it’s a father/daughter story, and after I presented the first micro-chapter story from the daughter’s point of view, I found one of the lines I wrote at the top of the second micro-chapter came from the father’s point of view. When I noticed that, I continued writing the chapter from the father’s perspective. Nick Hornby does something similar with About a Boy, rotating chapter point-of-view between an adult, Will, and a young boy, Marcus. I dig this as a storytelling structure and if I pursue this project, I plan to give this structure a try.

My second surprise came when the father announced he didn’t have the internet in his apartment. Not only was his daughter shocked, so was I. It’s been a while since I’ve been in an environment dominated by luddites or those who haven’t bridged the digital divide. To me, this simple resistance to modern technology and convenience told me a lot of about this father as a character, and it was fascinating to have him expose this to me as I wrote. I’m not exaggerating, either. He literally told me while I typed it. I was simply the stenographer to his confessional testimony.

Finally, the combination of two ideas hit me as I sat back to take in what I’d written. I scrolled down to the end of the piece and re-read the two paragraph idea. It suddenly became clear that another idea I’d had floating around, one about a teenage girl about the same age and attitude as the daughter in this story, was a perfect piece to slap into this puzzle. I’ve never been a fan of forcing an image or plot point into a story just because it’s “too good” to not use, but I believe it’s been floating around in my brain, unused, long enough. Plus, it just fits. This idea coupling may even be the catalyst which keeps me writing this piece.

Steve Martin once said, “The greatest thing you can do is surprise yourself.” I couldn’t agree more.


[tags]creativity, writing surprise, write down ideas, save ideas, Nick Hornby, Steve Martin[/tags]

5 thoughts on “Saving ideas and surprising yourself.”

  1. Appropriately, this post led a couple disparate thoughts into my mind. Your description of About a Boy‘s rotating-point-of-view structure reminds me of a sci-fi series I finally completed last week, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Gap Cycle. It’s a series I started in high school, never finished, and restarted this summer. The most interesting device Donaldson used was the rotating point-of-view. He rotated the storytelling through around twenty characters, which is feasible given the 2800-page running time.

    Secondly, the crux of your article reminded me of the South by Southwest session Making Your Short Attention-Span Pay Big Dividends (mp3 link). The title depicts a clear relationship to your thesis. Particularly, Jim Coudal of Coudal Partners discusses a book his company keeps. I believe it is called The Book, though I don’t have time to confirm. Anyway, all their ideas go into that book – I imagine there are several books. Whether it was a project they pursued for two weeks or a one-line feeling of an idea, it goes in that book.

    The Book isn’t designed to archive these ideas for restarting later. Rather, The Book serves as inspiration. Paging through an historical record of an entire company’s stream-of-consciousness provides amazing inspiration for current and future projects. The Book is a stupendous idea in its own right.

  2. Great advice–I keep my iPhone with me at all times and am constantly entering ideas I get. When I get to my desk I transfer them to my notes program on my iMac. Most of them never leave that program, but a lot of them do. It’s too much to expect to be able to keep all of your good ideas in your head.


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