Sunday, December 21, 2008

I've Got the Ideas: You Do the Work

Yes, I'm up on my hobby horse again. I ran across more ads, people offering their fantastic ideas for the poor idea-less writer to whip up into a best-seller. (With generous royalty split to come, of course.)

Why does this bug me so much? I guess because an idea is like an opinion, which--as they say--is like an *sshole: Everybody's got one. And it bugs me so much because it seems to discount the work a writer does. As if an idea is enough. The idea for a novel doesn't mean much until there is a novel. The idea is a starting point, a jumping off point, simply the beginning of the real work.

And maybe it bugs me so much because when it comes to writing, ideas aren't the problem. As if a writer doesn't have tens, hundreds, thousands of them a day, a week, a month. I have tons of ideas--big and small--and I struggle with them, everyday.

I struggle to get them down, struggle to make them clear to a reader, struggle to put them into a compelling form. One of the big ideas I've had for a long time is what I call--in my head--the intergenerational transfer of violence. The idea is the result of growing up in a family reeling with the after-affects of World War II. My mother was born in 1941, in Russia, literally in the middle of war zone.

She came to the States in 1951, along with her parents and three siblings, after spending five years in a DP camp. Now they were safe. Now they could concentrate on pursuing the American dream. Right? Well, sure. But these people had issues, to put it mildly. And because I lived with them, some of those issues became my issues.

I think of WWII as being, somehow, my war too, although I wasn't born until 1964. I'm not sure when the idea crystalized for me, or why it is so important to me. But it is. And I've been struggling for most of my adult life to transform that idea into an amazing piece of fiction. Or non-fiction. But to transform it, anyway.

I've approached it from many different angles: Academically (degree in history and Russian). Psychologically (therapy). Aerologically (travel to Russia). Pop-culturally (watch practically every WWII movie ever made). I'm engaged, searching, always. I write, I do research, and I grind to a halt. Repeat. But I don't seem to come any closer to wrestling the idea to the ground.

Now, I don't actually think I could just hand this idea off to another writer, and ask him to execute it for me. But even if I could, I wouldn't. It's my idea, for good or bad. It's apparently my task in life to struggle with this. I learn in this struggle, I occupy my time with it, I come back to it after breaks for other things.

And maybe that, in the end, is what so bugs me about these posts: they seem to me to be based on a premise that is wholly divorced from the reality of creative work, a premise that is a fundamental misunderstanding of the creative process. The idea is not the thing. The struggle with the idea is the thing. That is what produces the novel.

And the particulars (age, race, gender, family, history, culture, education) a writer brings to their struggle with an idea is what makes the novel worthwhile, what makes it interesting, engaging, and compelling for the reader. An idea isn't a relay baton, that can simply be passed from one person to another. You can no more give me an idea that results in the novel you have in your head than I can give you an idea that will result in you having the same dream I had last night. A novel is a kind of dream, made tangible.

The idea is simply a catalyst. It is both transformed by and transforms the person who holds it.

As far as I'm concerned, if there's an idea you're struggling with, especially struggling to execute creatively, you are lucky. So many people don't have any ideas about anything. This is a clue from your subconcious, a delivery of raw material, and you should take it seriously. (I would say it's a sign from the universe, but I don't actually think the universe gives a flying f**k about us.) It means you have work to do, research to do, thinking to do. Your struggle with this idea is a gift, and you should treat it as such.

* * * * * *
Ideas are easy. It's the execution of ideas that really separates the sheep from the goats. I read newspapers, textbooks on crime. I talk to private investigators, police officers, jail administrators, doctors, lawyers, and career criminals. Ideas are everywhere.

--Sue Grafton