Creativity Corner #2: Find your idea

In the last installment, our Heroine found herself a writing class.

Being in a writing class boosted my self-confidence and gave me some self-imposed deadlines. And I met them: bringing in three or more pages of new writing for each class. I thought of these things as essays; they seemed too slight to be book chapters. I wasn’t yet sure I had a central idea. But I remembered enough of what I tell the writers who work with me that I decided it didn’t matter WHAT I wrote; it only mattered THAT I wrote.

So I plugged on, writing my essays. And then I got a nudge from a playwright I’d worked with briefly in college. Maria Irene Fornés, a Cuban émigrée, made unique contributions to the Greenwich Village theatre scene in the 1960s. She passed away several years ago, but this summer the City Center Encores Off-Center program did a concert staging of the one musical she contributed to—a bizarre and jaw-droppingly absurd thing called Promenade.

Irene wrote the lyrics and book (the script) and she did it in what seemed to me a miraculous fashion. She wrote the character names on index cards, one name per card, and then wrote various plot points, again one per card. Then she shuffled the cards and drew them at random: the results became the “plot” of the show—quotation marks because I recognize that not everyone would call it that.

By the time I’d left the theatre—or at least by the time I’d gotten home—I realized that this book I’d had in my head for so long didn’t have to be chronological. So what if it jumped around the decades like a rogue Tardis. Irene gave me permission to tell my story in any way I wished. The next day, I sat down at my computer with a completely different attitude: my first pages after that may have been tentative, but it wasn’t long before even I had to acknowledge I was writing a book.

Between that revelation in mid-July and the end of August, about six weeks later, my first draft had grown to over 60,000 words. I knew they wouldn’t all survive the revision process, but I was and am proud of my work.

I kept going, day after day, carefully monitoring any doubt that surfaced. “It’s not my job to judge this now,” I told my writing. “My job is just to write.”

And so by the beginning of September I was ready for the next stage.

Inspiration — how do you find it? Frequent questions

Q: How do you find inspiration?
A: Don’t look.

Remember your last break-up? You were so completely over whatever slice of humanity you get romantic with that you told all your friends NEVER AGAIN!

And no matter who you were talking to—your BFF or your bartender or the lady at church—you always got some variation on the same response: “When you’re not looking, that’s always when you find The One.” In my book, that’s one of the most annoying things anyone can say. Right behind “Get over it.”

Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is, you can find inspiration. The bad news: inspiration is a lot like your next sweetheart. If you want to find it, you have to stop looking.

Don’t wait for inspiration: Just write.

Playwright María Irene Fornés taught me about inspiration
María Irene Fornés

I once took a class with the playwright María Irene Fornés. She told us when she was a young woman in New York City, her roommate wanted to be a writer. But instead of writing, the woman would go out partying (that’s how I recall the story—it was a while ago).

Irene intercepted her roommate one night and sat her down at the kitchen table. She gave her the nearest book—a cookbook—and told her she wasn’t allowed to leave the house until she’d written something using a word starting with the first letter of every line, or something like that. The roommate soon found herself writing. And she kept on writing for decades. How do I know? She was Susan Sontag.

One day Irene had our class walk around the room. She told us to find something to look at and start writing. I remember staring at a knot in the wood paneling and writing about my friend Emily emerging from her parents’ coat closet wearing a whole peacock on her head.

Now, the knot in that wood didn’t remind me of Emily or of the amazing taxidermied peacock hat. But staring at it allowed me to access that part of my brain where the memory lived. And that was enough to get me writing.

I created the prompt for Day 2 of the Jumpstart writing challenge in memory of Irene’s Susan Sontag story. And the results, so far, have been all I could hope for. Someone who wrote about business yesterday turned in perfectly respectable passages from a mystery novel. And he said he’d never written fiction before. Other people have turned the prompt into memoir; still another found a way to work it into the business marketing she’s creating.

Inspiration is just a tool

I learned from Irene that “inspiration” doesn’t exist. Or maybe that it does, but it’s not something separate and apart from us. In fact, it’s everywhere.

And it’s not a prerequisite for writing. It’s just a tool to help us get going.

Now, I’m not saying you never need inspiration—I doubt Susan Sontag’s cookbook-inspired work ever won an award. But don’t get stuck thinking you need to have a great idea before you start writing.

The great ideas only reveal themselves when they’re ready. Just like it may take a couple of dates before that person you’d sworn not to go out with—because you’re not looking for romance, remember?—turns out to be The One.