Who Let The Philosopher Drive?: Keeping Your Ideas From Murdering Your Story

Who let the Essential Absurdity of Life drive again?

I was reading yesterday, it being Sunday and me still being trapped inside by the winter snow like a caged beast. For real, am I ever going to see the lawn again? I can barely remember if we have a lawn.

Anyway, I was reading a book that had started off well but was losing me now. Eventually I gave up on it, but being a writer, I had to figure out why I gave up. Sometimes figuring this out is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle of preconceptions, expectations, and whatever bullshit I absorbed through trawling the internet lately. But this time it was pretty damn simple:

It was an idea, not a story.

There were some very interesting concepts, but they were driving, and it wasn’t a trip I wanted to take. Because in the car with me were the biggest collection of cardboard characters I’ve encountered outside a porno.* The ideas were in the driver’s seat, and no matter how fast they drove, they had no idea where they were going.

Nor should they. That’s what characters and plot do. Compelling characters and a decent plot make it a story, instead of an essay or a philosophical dialogue.

But, alas, in this story, the Ideas had taken over, and the story was dead. I felt like I was being shouted at, not being told a good tale. And who wants that?

You cannot let your ideas murder your story. Well, you can. You can do whatever you want, because I’m just a stranger on the other side of a monitor. Or possibly a voice in your head. Am I a voice? Do I sound like Bane? I hope I sound like Bane.

Anyway, you can do whatever you want, but so can your readers, and if they find out that you’ve taken them down Didacticism Lane instead of Story Road, they might get justifiably bored and bugger off to do something else. Something more interesting, probably.

No one likes to be preached at. That’s not to say that you can’t present points of view that you feel strongly about; you should, because if you don’t feel strongly about something then you probably aren’t writing. But be a little subtle about it. And don’t ruin the story in service to an idea.

The ideas should serve the story, not the other way around. If you find your ideas are what you’re really interested in, maybe switch to essay writing. Because no one wants to pick up what they thought was a novel only to find that it was a sermon.

*Inside a porno, at least it’s stiff cardboard, AM I RIGHT?

Making Space For Creativity

Mike napping on the couch

Do not disturb. Creativity in progress. (Photo credit: fireflythegreat)

Ever wonder why you always get your best ideas in the shower?* Or right when you’re about to fall asleep? I used to think it was just my brain being a dick—here, have a wonderful idea at a time when it’s completely useless, and, while we’re at it, fuck you—but then I read a couple of articles like this. And this.

For those of you who couldn’t be arsed to click through, those links lead to articles about the importance of relaxation and boredom for creativity. Which makes sense: it’s very hard to hear any kind of inner voice in the midst of all the noise we surround ourselves with. We’re constantly distracted by the sheer volume of other shit going on. In other words, if you want the ideas and the inspiration, you’ve got to make room for them. Like vampires, they only go where they’re invited.

You have to leave space for creativity. We have this thing—at least I do—about scheduling every last minute of the day. If we’re not doing something, and something that we deem worthwhile at that, then we feel that time has been wasted. We have to be working, exercising, socializing, something. Even low-key activities like reading tend to fall lower on that scale, and we feel guilty ‘wasting’ time on them.  And if we’re not doing that shit, then you can be damn sure we’re stuck in front of our computers or smartphones, obsessively checking every twitch and fart of the Internet.

We need to reintroduce boredom to the mental ecosystem. Not real boredom, where you’re genuinely at a loss for what to do. Just the lull in activity that makes you think, makes you go inside your head and find something to do. We need the space to do nothing.

So, give it a try. Turn off your wireless connection, put away the phone, get away from the TV, and stop checking in on Twitter every eight seconds. Trust me, it’ll all continue without you. Just sit and listen to the silence for a while.

And see what turns up.

(For those of you keeping score at home, there are two new rejection letters to add to my 2013 total. Thanks for playing, Tesseracts 17 and Sword and Mythos! This brings the yearly count up to three, for three different stories. Uh…go, me?)

*Point of fact: I tend to think of my best ideas doing random shit like brushing my teeth. But I understand that the shower thing is more common, so let’s go with that.

Inspiration is Everywhere

giant motorized prozac cupcake

The other prescription for boredom. (Photo credit: yananine)

I haven’t been truly bored in about five years. Or, in other words, since I started writing full time. Oh, sure there have been times when I had to do stuff I didn’t want to. Or times when I just genuinely wanted to lie around and do nothing. But being bored, as in unable to think of anything that would entertain me or fill my time? Really can’t remember the last time.

If I had to put a cause to it, I’d say that it’s the writing. The more writing you do—in other words, the more that you open yourself to the creative possibilities of any situation—the less easy it is to be bored. Even doing shit like waiting at the doctor’s office. You know the scene: dog-eared magazines covered in disease, something unbelievably inane on the television, people coughing or sneezing or bandaged or just generally looking miserable. And that one kid who’s unbelievably hyper. So I pass the time by imagining how different characters would react to the place.* Hint: often not well.

Places like this would have been prime grounds for boredom once, but not now. Same goes for waiting at the dentist’s office, being stuck in traffic, going on a long drive, or just those inexplicably null hours where nothing’s happening. I just…can’t get bored any more. At least not by myself. I can be bored by TV shows or movies, bored by conversations, but time by myself? Not so much. I just…leave.

I realize that this does not sound particularly well-adjusted, but I’m okay with it. I’ll take escape into a private fantasy world over being forced to watch Mass for Shut-Ins at the doctor’s office any day.**

Also, let’s not forget that the world is amazing. Like Louis CK says, “Everything’s amazing and no one’s happy”.*** Inspiration, much like its sibling, Distraction, is everywhere. At the risk of classifying myself now and forever as a hippy, you’ve just got to look for it.

I do. All the time. I can’t stop it anymore. And, honestly, I wouldn’t even if I could. Because who doesn’t want the world to be a more fascinating place?

* I sometimes read, too, but I’ve noticed lately that, since I read on a Kindle, I get a lot more questions than I get reading done. Usually I don’t mind, since anything that encourages people to show interest in reading is all right with me, but it’s hard to answer questions with a sore throat.
**Yes, this is a real thing. And that’s its actual name. I thought it was a joke when it first came on, but, alas, the world is a very strange place.
***I love that skit. I actually ripped the audio of it just so I could put it on when I’m travelling and getting frustrated. It’s very hard to take that shit seriously when someone is yelling , “And then what happened? Did you you fly through the air majestically like a bird? Did you partake of the miracle of human flight, you non-contributing zero?” Alas, NBC made YouTube take down the one I ripped, that just has the travel part, but this one has the whole piece.