In 2017 (when we still gathered in big sweaty, breathing, coughing groups and didn’t find anything extraordinary about it) I heard author Elizabeth Gilbert speak. Best known for the book Eat Pray Love, her then recent book, Big Magic, was about nurturing creativity.
She had/has a fascinating belief that ideas are “entities” that circulate out in the universe looking for someone to bring them to life. To Gilbert this isn’t a metaphor or a way to describe the collective unconscious or a shared cultural milieu. Here’s how she put in in Big Magic:
“I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are disembodied, energetic life-forms…Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner.”
She also believes that ideas are so eager to manifest that if you don’t take them up on the offer they’ll find someone else. But you still need to “interview” your ideas to make sure it’s right for you and you’re right for it.
At the time, I blogged about the questions I’d like to ask my auditioning ideas, and it seems to be a good time to repost–so many of my writer and artist friends are feeling re-charged.
Like many writers, I often have more ideas than I know what to do with. And I sometimes have a hard a hard time figuring out which ideas are worth the effort and which aren’t. When I first started writing, there were some ideas that I beat to death, so sure was I that I could turn it into something, even though the truth is it had come to the wrong door.
The way I eventually put it to myself was that certain ideas had “energy.” It’s more intuitive than formalized. But after hearing Gilbert talk, I put together a list of interview questions for my idea applicants:
- Why do you think you’re the right idea for me?
- What’s in your heart? Do you have depth or are you just a pretty face?
- Do you have breadth? Is there room to move around in this situation or notion?
- Do you have any surprises in store? (I want surprises.)
And I had some questions for myself as the boss:
- Can I do justice to this idea? Sure, I can research and travel and work hard and probably learn about just about anything, but am I the right writer for a spy novel set in Istanbul? What would it take to learn about international espionage and learn Turkish customs and culture and idioms and geography and so much more?
- Is this story “me”? Can I really see the world like Graham Greene or, another way to put it, is my understanding of the world genuinely expressed through a spy novel or will it feel fake in the end?
If a picture book idea comes to my door, I like to ask:
- Do you have a plot? In other words, are you a story or a concept book?
- If you’re a concept book, do you have a different or new way to talk about colors or sounds or feelings or trucks? How much “concept” (as in high concept) is there to you so you can stand out?
- If you’re an alphabet book do you have a word for Q?
- If you’re a rhyming book, why are you a rhyming book? Do you have a good reason to be or do you just think that makes you cute and child-friendly?
- Are you simple enough to be a picture book, but profound enough to be interesting to me and a reader?
- I don’t overwork the question: will you sell? But I let it brush across my mind. How saturated is the market with stories about schools for kids with supernatural skills? Can you, Ms. Idea, or I bring anything new to the table?
Still in the end, probably the most important question for any idea is: Do you interest me, energize me? Do I want to do you?
When I mentioned I was writing about interviewing ideas, fellow blogger Julie Paschkis reminded me how fragile ideas are and that you can over-interrogate them. She shared this poem with me.
I’ve thought of a poem.
I carry it carefully,
nervously, in my head,
like a saucer of milk;
in case I should spill some lines
before I put them down.
So don’t grill your idea till it’s sweating under the lights, or to really stretch a metaphor, till the milk curdles. But a few gentle questions could allow you to say “No thanks,” with no regrets. Or, “Yes, let’s do it!” more confident that this is an idea that deserves your love and hard work and that will, in turn, work hard for you.
“Depth or just another pretty face?” I’ve never considered ideas this way, but I appreciate learning a new technique.
Hi Karen, I hope it’s useful. Do you have your own way of figuring out which story ideas to work on?
The ones that follow me around, sometimes for years, no matter how consistently I try giving up on them. I’ll be walking along and “wham” that character returns.
I know those ones! So true.
A brilliant post. I’ll start interviewing my ideas and see what sorts of conversations we have. Thanks!
Thanks, Ellen. Hope you find some you want to bring on full time. 🙂
There must not be a lot of takers of ideas, but this does help explain why I feel like I am being bombarded with ideas every day. I don’t know why I grab some ideas and take them to fruition. You have provided a good list of questions to make it more deliberate.
P.S., Q is for quilt.
Ha! Q is supposedly the hardest letter to find a match for. Although I have to believe X is harder. Still with X you see a lot of “cheaters” using a word with an X somewhere in there. For some reason, we don’t seem to accept the same trick with Q. Time for a Scrabble dictionary.
Have you seen one of the latest alphabet books, The Invisible Alphabet (2020) by Joshua David Stein and Ron Barrett? Just when you thought all of the alphabet book ideas were covered. In any case, I do think that ideas are out there, waiting impatiently to be plucked from the ether. That’s one reason why it feels like so many come out on the same topic at once, sometimes. I do a limited form of interrogation: 1) does it spark my interest enough to work on it for the long haul? 2) does it feel fresh? 3) Is there enough there there? Sometimes I actually can’t answer all of these questions until I’ve done a bit of research. And sometimes the “wow” factor takes over and I don’t care about the rest. Not very scientific…and sometimes I end up in a hole of my own making.
Does it feel fresh? How could I forget that one? Yes! For picture books especially. I’ll check out The Invisible Alphabet. And Julie Paschkis and Julie Larios have a wonderful new alphabet book just out: EEK! It’s really delightful.
Okay, just checked out “Invisible Alphabet”. That is clever! One of those “I wish I’d thought of that.” Or maybe it should be “I wish that one had come to my door.”
The Muse is a funny take on inspiration by Albert Brooks.
I really like Albert Brooks. I’ll check it out. Thanks!
Bonnie, This is such a fun post which reminds me of how we think when we meet new people where some excite your thinking, and you begin to wonder, just maybe, is this a new friend for keeps. Thank you!
Good way to put this, especially since you have to live with some of these ideas for a long time!