I am the father to three children and like all good parents I have tried to be there for them through sickness and health. Sometimes that meant sitting up with a sick child. We had our kids when we were young and I remember walking the floor with an infant on one arm and a college text book in my free hand. (I had children for whom being held wasn’t enough. I had to be pacing.) Sometimes we walked through the difficult growing up years, the budding relationship years, the rejection years, the years of indecision and uncertainty, and so on. It’s what parents do, and in the end, those difficult moments turn into fond memories.
Here’s the odd thing: Nursing a novel is very similar. There is a moment of conception when an idea comes to mind. That plot question turns into a story idea but it seldom arrives fully grown and seldom comes easily.
The ancient Greeks tell of how Zeus gave birth to Athena: how Hermes directed Hephaestus to use a wedge to split open Zeus’ forehead (sometimes the story says an ax was used). When the act was done, the goddess Athena sprang out as a fully grown adult and wearing armor and holding a shield. Talk about a difficult birthing experience. No wonder Zeus’ head hurt.
At times it feels like giving birth to a robust story idea involves the same kind of pain and dramatic lengths. Seldom, however, does an idea spring forth fully formed—with or without its own shield. Most of the time, we get the bare nubbins of a plot. Maybe we catch a glimpse of the protag, or may the pressing issue comes to us, or maybe a few action scenes or bits of dialogue float to the surface of our thoughts demanding some attention. After that, we are left to walk the floor with the idea. We let it percolate in our gray matter. We wait for the story to tell us what we need to know. Other times we interrogate the idea until it gives us the info we need.
Yes, I know there are those that tell us ideas come to them fleshed out and dressed in a tux. I’ve never been that lucky and I’m happy about that. I’m always suspicious of ideas that come to me in completed form. My experience is that it is seldom as complete as I first think, or the idea is so thin as to have no weight. I can’t speak for everyone, but easy ideas are seldom good ones.
So we sit up with our stories. The idea follows us out to dinner and while others are chatting it up, a large segment of our brain is hashing the concept over. If joins us in bed, and having no sense of proper decorum, vague ideas step into the shower with us. It sits at the breakfast table while we much on toast; it sits on our lap while we drive and chatters away; it circles overhead. Such ideas have even been known to elbow their way on to our sermon notes.
This is creativity. Real creativity. Not flash in the pan kind of creativity, but creativity that is lived with, observed, question, nurtured, and encouraged. Sometimes it is creativity that requires we sit up with it in the night, staring at the television with no idea of what is playing.
In the end, however, such attention and involvement leads to a robust story.
I am often asked by budding writers, “How do I know if my idea is a good one?” My answer goes like this: “A good idea will not leave you alone. It will dog your steps. It will rattle the doorknobs of your mind. It will haunt the corridors of your brain until you do something with it. If you can’t shake the thing, then you probably have a good idea.”
Alton Gansky writes book length work, mostly novels, and when he is not writing, he is being bossed around by yet to be written ideas.