Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Essence of Write On


This is one of those nights when I'm just about ready to go to bed and realize that I haven't written 750 words yet. I think I would be pretty bad on deadline. But I have a 57-day streak of writing going and would like to maintain it, so I'm here typing and trying to see what happens. As I went to type, I told my wife that I probably wouldn't be publishing it since I'm likely to just rattle of 750 words about whatever. She said, "so you'll write, blah-blah-blah-blah." She knows my writing process so well.

What does it take to come up with an idea? That's one of those questions that people ask all the time and that creative people brush off. I think that we brush it off in part because it is mysterious and in part because it's insulting. The questions suggests that it doesn't come from our heads, from our hard work. It's like the time at college when an acquaintance, hearing that I had earned a 4.0 for the semester said, "you're so lucky that you get good grades." Wondering where the ideas come from suggests that there is pure magic at work instead of the work of creating something. This piece is coming to me because I decided that I was going to write and that it might be worth something to write about how that writing works.

Funny story. My friend is a professional nature photographer. As part of his work, he posts shots to Facebook. Invariably, someone tells him something like, "God is the true artist." It always pisses me off. God isn't the artist, Chris is. He's the one who saw what 99% of us wouldn't have seen and then created something of it that about three dozen other people in the world might be able to pull off. Creation is hard work, developed talent, and making the consistent effort to create and create again.

So a lot of why people blow off the "where do you get your ideas?" question is that it is kind of insulting, but it's also that things are mysterious. Writing, though I do it every day and have for many years, is baffling to me. Another friend of mine taught me that writing is generative, that the act of writing creates ideas. That's a revolutionary thought. Most people expect that the idea is formed and is then transcribed, but it's the act of writing that creates the idea. Thus, I get ideas for writing because I'm writing. I come up with things because I start typing.

Still, I see in my classroom that this doesn't work for everyone. Some people just can't create well on the page or screen. They don't trust the process or themselves and so it goes nowhere. Faced with a situation such as I have been this evening, of having to write on deadline and not having an idea to write about, they are more than likely going to quit. That or they will stare at the screen until well past midnight hoping that something will come to them.

So where do ideas come from? Here's the best I can answer that in under two hundred words. Ideas come from seeds just as trees do. See, I start with a word or two and try to control my expectations. Rather than think that I'm going to come up with a great idea or that I won't, I just set about getting a few words down and then continuing the chain. Tonight, as I often do, I start with the story of what is happening to me in the moment. From there I can see if a larger idea develops. It often does.

The thing I'm finding in my work is that the whole operation is Zen-like even though I have only the most basic understanding of Zen. I have to go into the process aware but not expectant, present and not anxious. If I am just there in the moment of those first few words, then they lead me to other words and other words and, more often than not, to a good idea.

Ideas come from words. My seeds are words. The seeds of this piece were, "This is one of those nights when." The tree that grew was a story about creating things, about how I go about creating things. There were branches along the way, but the trunk is basically straight and strong. It ought to be. It's built on the trust I have in the one thing that keeps me creating: to write on.