Friday, March 21, 2014

My Argument Against Writing Ideas Down

I've mentioned in the past that for most of my writing I'll eschew an outline. I realize there are countless professional writers who are far more successful than me who would disagree with that approach. But I'm also in good company as best-selling authors like John Scalzi and Stephen King will go on record as usually only having a kernel of an idea before plowing into their novels.

For fiction writing, I find a strict outline to be constrictive and not allow me to follow my characters. This does mean that sometimes the second draft is a bit more work as I have the potential for more plot holes and rabbit trails to contend with as I worked through the direction of the story. I find it creates a more organic and lively piece of fiction as I'm allowed to trust my characters and have a story unfold before my eyes.

There are some people that such an approach will be a recipe for extreme anxiety. I know there are countless award-winning novels that had rigid outlines before they were written. This is one of those examples where the writing strategy doesn't work for every personality and type of writer. I find my story has more passion and energy if I allow it to be uncovered during the writing process and I only have a rough idea of the final product. To be honest, this is an approach that I have for most of my non-fiction work as well.

Again, this isn't to say I come in blind. I always have an idea of what I want to say. Sometimes the idea has had days or weeks or even months to germinate, so I can often come to the computer without anything written but the story is still fully formed in my head. I find an outline in the mind allows more flexibility and possibility for growth than a written construction that I feel obligated to follow.

This brings me to the "idea." This is yet another place where I'm more apt to follow Stephen King than many creative writing professors or some other very successful writers. I've heard the advice that one should carry around a notebook, so that they can immediately jot down an idea the moment it pops into their head. I think that is an awful idea and Mr. King has proven in countless speaking engagements that he agrees (well, he hasn't outright said he agrees with Christopher Spicer, because he doesn't have a clue that such a guy exists -- unless he has a friend with my same name). Of course, just because I think it is an awful idea doesn't mean it actually is awful and I know many people who are likely better suited for that approach.

My problem is that I get 20 or more ideas in a day. I'm not saying all of them are good or worthy to be turned into a story or article. Actually, I believe most of them are horrible and deserve to be forgotten. This is where not writing them down helps. If you write down every idea then it survives and it is there to torment you until you rip out that piece of paper.

My philosophy is that not writing them down means that your memory becomes a natural filter. The bad ideas will likely be forgotten before the sun sets on the day. But the good ones burrow inside your brain and camp out there. Sometimes they'll even grow and strengthen as the days go on. A good idea is one that you can let sit for a while. It never goes away. It remains and grows until you do something about it. It will haunt and call to you until you finally decide to transform it into a story. Hopefully, that good idea can blossom into something great.

Sometimes you have an idea but at the time you don't know what to do with it. But you're probably convinced it is something special and worthy of being turned into a story. The inclination is to write it down so that it doesn't get caught by the wind and blown away forever. From my experience, a good idea can last for days and months and years and even decades. If it really is worth becoming a story then it likely will be attached to you. You may not think about it for a long time. It will rise up back to the surface when properly inspired or when you find the other pieces to the story puzzle that will turn your small concept into something grand.

If you're still thinking about something after a decade then that is a pretty good indicator you're meant to write it. After it has simmered for all those years, it has likely been brewed into something that is prepared to be consumed by the masses. Or at least, it will once you make that idea something more.

As I said before, I'll have far too many ideas run in and out of my head all day. Usually at that moment, they seem destined for gold. Maybe they are and maybe they could have been something grand if I bothered to write them down. I also know that I still have ideas in my head for stories that I thought about before I even met Emily. They've constantly been shoving and pushing me so that I remember they exist and they want me to make the steps to ensure their birth. This is how I know these are the ideas that I should follow.

Why do I sit on some ideas for so long? Sometimes it is because they're far too ambitious and I don't feel ready to start writing them. Other times the idea is still vague and I haven't figured out how to make it something more. Often these are ideas that are fly paper that start having other small ideas stick on them until it becomes an entirely new and better thing (unlike fly paper, actually). I've had ideas that at the time I thought were great but I knew I should sit on for a bit. I'll then read about an event in the paper or have something on one of my walks resonate with me or have a conversation trigger something, then the new thought will converge with that long lingering idea to finally form into the thing that I always wanted. I'll be reminded of that old idea but then realize it was just the formation of a character or a backstory or just needed this new addition to actually become original and fresh.

This is why I don't write ideas down. I have faith that the good ones aren't going anywhere. Or an idea that I think is good isn't actually ready to become anything yet. It needs a bit more time in the pan before I come across the missing ingredient. It is hard for me to distance myself from an idea and actually sort out if it is worthy anything. Especially when I've just uncovered it and it feels like my map to great riches and fame. Unless the idea is so strong and urging me to write it, I usually leave it alone.

There are ideas that pop in my head that basically command immediate attention. It isn't like I leave everything to fight for my attention. There are times that you know this is the thing that must be written now. For me that is typically a non-fiction piece or something that is a hot current event. You can't really let the thoughts of a major news item simmer. A lot of times the reason a person writes an idea down is due to the fact they know there isn't time to write right at the moment or that they haven't got it completely formulated. In my experience, it is just better to leave it alone and trust it will come back to you when the time is right.

After saying all this, I have to confess that I have written ideas down before. At one point, I believed fiction ideas can be left alone but non-fiction ideas should be written down. Over the past several months, there had been ideas that I thought were great but either I didn't have a contact that I thought would buy it or I didn't have the time to write it at the moment or I just wasn't quite sure where to go with it, so I wrote it down for future reference. It was left on my massive To Do List for me to constantly reference and be reminded of.

Oh yeah, I have a To-Do list. In case one thinks that I don't write ideas down or create outlines is due to the fact I'm a disorganized mess then they'd be wrong. Actually, they would be right about the mess part, but that isn't the reason I avoid writing down ideas or creating outlines for stories. I am well aware that my natural inclination is to go with the flow. I also know that such a flow will leave me an anxiety-ridden glob of mess if I try to take that approach with my writing business. I actually meticulously schedule my day. I am also aware that certain appointments can't be trusted to my memory, so I write those things down. I write lots down to ensure I don't forget. I've just learned that the one thing that doesn't need to be around to remind me is story or article ideas.

In the past few months I've probably written over 10 different ideas for articles. At the moment they felt like instant genius and I couldn't risk them floating away into the abyss. Several months later, some of those ideas are still in my head, and I didn't need them written down to remember them. A few others I now look at the list and can't remember why I even bothered wasting the 5 seconds it took to type out those few words. I don't know where I was going with it. I probably could still write it, but the passion for it is completely gone. It'd likely be more painful than trying to shave with a butcher knife with even a less satisfying result.

One of my favourite pieces I've written on this blog was It's Not Okay. It all started when I was annoyed at a neighbour for feeding my dog ice cream. I had formulated an angry letter in the shower, and at some point during this soap covered mind rant, I'd thought I'd come up with some humorous piece about crazy neighbours. By the time I got out the shower, I started feeling a little selfish about wanting to write about a bunch of personal things that bugged me. It got me thinking about real injustices and problems that people need to deal with every day. I then saw something shiny and promptly forgot about it.

The idea that started with Summit eating something bad for him but then got me thinking about actual issues stuck with me for many months. I wasn't sure what it was supposed to be or what I was trying to say yet. Until finally in the fall, I decide to sit down and churn out the poem. At no point did I ever write down the idea. I didn't need to be reminded of it. It stuck with me. I'm still really happy with the results.

A personal story is something that can cling to you for a long time before the time is right for it to show up. Right around the same time as It's Not Okay, I was trying to come up with something to write and suddenly just decided to recount an event from my childhood when I stood up to some bullies. I have no idea why I chose to write it. I definitely didn't have any message that I wanted to share. It was just supposed to be a throwaway piece to fill up space on the site.

Obviously, the event had been stewing inside me for a long time. I wasn't even aware how much I had to say and how I could apply the tale to other thing in my life. It ended up being a piece about people standing up for themselves and the need for justice and also just a look at the dangers of bullying. The story ended up formulating and growing as I wrote it. I just followed where it was ready to take me. To my great surprise, it ended up being one of my most popular pieces ever and I got a horde of emails from people thanking me for it and how it helped them heal over their own pains of childhood. It was never the intention, but I'm glad it ended up having value to readers.

My point is that I never wrote down that story prior to the day I wrote the piece. I'd never really planned to write it. I rarely even think about that day. Yet that moment it came to the surface and it ended up being something that resonated with many people. It was a story that hung around in my brain for decades and waited for the day it could be told.

I like being surprised by the stories that inhabit the space in my head. The creation process is one of the most thrilling and addictive parts of writing. I like the part where I'm wrestling with a work and trying to head-butt it into being something meaningful. It is that joy that stops me from wanting to outline. It is also that process that reminds me that I need to trust that my ideas will come at the moment they're needed.

Back when I was writing my Dad's Eye View column, I wanted to make sure I captured as many of the stories and events in Everett's new life. I actually ended up not ever writing down an idea or really planning anything out. It just so happened that every time the deadline was approaching and I needed something written that I was always able to recall something worth spouting about. One of my most popular columns was the one where I allowed "Everett to write it." I'd never planned on doing an Everett as a writer piece. I'm not sure what my original plan was when I started writing it. I just remember that when I started smashing the fingers to the keyboard that I suddenly realized this tale may be more exciting from a baby's perspective. So that is what I did. From my experience, creativity isn't forced, but rather comes naturally.

Now, this isn't to say I don't brainstorm. This isn't even to say that I don't put outlines in my head and go through different options for articles when I should be sleeping. I think about writing almost all day even when I'm not writing. Sometimes I'll have to revise a piece several times or end up realizing what I'm writing just isn't working. I'm definitely not talking about some kind of divine message that plops in my head and instantly becomes gold. There is still a lot of work involved, and most of the time, I usually have a rough idea where I'm taking a story or article.

For me I think the most creative and imaginative stuff comes when I just trust my ideas. I allow those thoughts that have been playing around in the mind for a bit to come to the surface when they're ready. It isn't going to work for everyone, and likely while reading this, you already know if this will work for you. From my experience, a creative process works best when you allow it to form on the page and you discover the story as you work through it.

For the record, I didn't write this idea down before writing this either. You may think I should have.

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