We can accomplish nothing in life without an idea. However, before we can successfully act, we must have a clear concept of what we are trying to accomplish, a concept that goes beyond the basic idea itself to encompass the entire endeavour. This may sound obvious, but the point is this: using ideas is more complicated than having just one and then vaguely trying to do something with it.
To succeed as a writer you need more than just a notebook full of story ideas. You also need a clear idea of where you are going with your writing.
Many writers, for example, have plenty of ideas for stories and novels; yet never manage to do anything with them. Their work falters for want of a central, organizing, and motivating idea of what they are doing and why they are doing it. They write, not for well-understood reasons, but because they think they like the work, hope to make some money, and yearn for fame or respect. Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that there are other enjoyable things to do, far easier and more reliable ways to make money, and fame is famously elusive. They fall by the wayside. As it happens, thinking, hoping, and yearning are not powerful enough reasons for doing anything, let alone tackling a tough long-term project that requires hard work and dedication.
This idea for this post came to me when I stumbled on an old goal scribbled on the inside cover of a small, very decrepit, 25-cent spiral notebook.
GOAL: to become a commercially successful fantasy author and makes lots of money. I will write big fat entertaining novels. Learn not to fear the size of a work.
(What can I say? Modesty has never been one of my strong points!)
The notebook is at least twenty years old and goes all the way back to the earliest days of my writing efforts. The pages have yellowed and become brittle. It is falling to pieces. Yet it bulges with scores of ideas for novels and short stories. The trouble is, my writing went nowhere in those days because I had no concept of what I was doing beyond that simple hastily scribbled goal and a notebook filled with story ideas.
Writers falter because they lack a set of deep convictions, a philosophy, to guide their work and provide the powerful motivation necessary to keep going. My struggles during the years that followed the scribbling of that goal had more to do with developing just such a philosophy than with writing novels. It was a search for workable ideas about writing.
We are wise to draw our motivation from our own unique set of emotionally important ideas. In other words, we must follow the impulses of our own deeper authentic selves. Pleasant work, money, and fame are usually ego or false persona goals borrowed from the society around us. We have learned that we are supposed to want these things. Nevertheless, since these things are not emotionally important enough to us (although we may think they are), they lack the power to keep us going when things get tough. Our own authentic emotionally important ideas are what really matters to us, and it is among those ideas that we will find the motivation we need.
What does this mean? It means writing about whatever it is that makes us upset, or that thrills the hell out of us. What do we hate about the world around us? What do we want to share with others? How do we want to influence people? If it matters to us, it will motivate us. We must make it part of or writing philosophy to work our genuine worldview into whatever we are writing. Of course, the strategy requires that we know ourselves well enough to grasp what truly matters to us. That is why succeeding at writing should be viewed as both an occupation and a journey of self-discovery.
Along with motivation, we need a thorough understanding of the creative process. Without such knowledge, the normal setbacks of writing (and there are many) will seem baffling and discouraging, perhaps even overwhelming. Confusion over what is happening will put us at risk of falling into despair and giving up the chase. When I mention “the creative process” I do not mean technique or style, I am referring to ideas like nuanced themes, incubation periods, images of wide scope, and so on. While it can sound quite fancy, none of this is rocket science, and anyone can learn the important aspects of creativity if they are truly interested.
Working out what matters to us and studying the creative process can accompany the writing process itself. In fact, seeing writing as a “package deal,” rather than mere scribbling, is a good idea and highly recommended. Our own particular version of the package is our unique philosophy of writing.