Panning for Gold in the Dark

A couple of weeks back the fabulous Confabulators weighed in on where their writing ideas come from.  I may backtrack a bit over some of that territory, because where they come from seems to be connected to the ideas I end up pursuing past the ‘idea’ stage.

Looking back on the thousands of words I’ve written, I sort of see this pattern: for a novel or short story, what usually what gets me going, and keeps me engaged, is something I’m struggling to understand in my own life.

For example:

~The aftermath of the unexplained death of my father became a short story about the changing relationship of two brothers, as one pulls away from what’s left of his family.

~Trying to understand marriage became a novel exploring the lives of a girl traded into white slavery and a man raised in the 1960’s “who did everything right and failed.”

~The idea of refuge and the families we make became a novel about the friendships between gay theater kids in college and their circle of friends (‘Fame meets Boogie Nights’.)

~Addiction, the allure of escapism, and personal betrayals (both perpetrated and experienced) became a book about a young girl’s search for her birth parents in an alternate reality.

Once I feel the idea and the accompanying urge to write about it, I ask myself:

1) It is compelling enough to hold my interest through the long slog you know it’s going to be?

2) Can the idea teach me, show me something, help me understand myself, and the world, better?

3) How can I show it in a story?  Can I show it in a compelling way? 

4) Will others care about this?

5) Can I pull it off the way I want and need to make it the best it can be?

Often, these questions only get answered through the process of brainstorming, experimenting, and actually writing, sometimes multiple drafts.  I should also say this process is not linear or even always conscious on my part. What works is often not what I expected. It just seems that the ideas that stick with me and bear the most delicious fruit end up answering these questions in the positive.

On the other hand, I do follow my instincts. Even if I feel an idea is not going anywhere but I like it, I give it a try.  On the flip side, even if someone else thinks it’s a great idea, if I don’t like it, I know I won’t stick with it. I never go with the flavor of the month.  It just won’t work if I’m not feeling it—unless there’s a paycheck attached, but I’m not quite there yet!

This is all to say that I tend to be engaged by and enjoy complex ideas and themes, and am learning that even though I can’t stick with simplistic ideas because I get bored, distilling it down to my main point and keeping a story structure that expresses those ideas simply seems best for me. It’s more manageable and (imho) and has a greater capacity for richness and focus, and, in turn, is more accessible and compelling to readers.

Or I may not follow a process at all and just write.  Apply ass to chair, can’t lose.


Mom, writer, girl.

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