The Writer’s Desk: Ideas Are Cheap; Inspiration’s a Moonshine

Have you ever had this happen? A friend calls. She’s just had a brilliant idea for a story. Or maybe even a novel. This friend doesn’t have time to write stories, but she knows that you do, so she thought she’d call and share her spectacular idea. You could write it up, your friend says, and you and she could be sort of like co-authors.

This happens to me occasionally (maybe once a year), and these “I-have-a-great-idea” phone calls tend to come from distant relatives—cousins I haven’t talked to in months or an uncle who lives across the country. I used to be able to shrug these conversations off, to politely dismiss the invitation to “co-author” a book. (“Wow. What an idea. Thanks for calling, but I’m really swamped with my own projects right now.”)

But I’m growing impatient with these people. Last month I received one of these phone calls, and afterwards, I started closing doors harder than I needed to.  At dinner, I viciously stabbed my food. I kept brooding. Why? What about that conversation got my goat?

Apart from the obvious condescension in these conversations, I think I have another answer. I hate these “I-have-a-great-idea” phone calls because they assume certain things about storytelling, things I absolutely abhor, things like what I’ll call here the “inspiration myth.”

This myth is the belief that all you really need to write well is an idea or a premise or an insight, and that the rest is just scribbling. This myth says that complete stories can “come to us” as if delivered on angels’ wings.

But as a writer, I know the truth. I know that ideas are cheap, that they come not at rare times, but at all times. Ideas are nothing. Most writers, I imagine, produce more ideas in a month than they can write in a lifetime, and they pay very little for these ideas. Finished stories, on the other hand, are expensive. They cost time and sweat and anguish and energy.

Of course, dispelling the “inspiration myth” isn’t easy, and we get no help from the popular writers of the day. Take J.K. Rowling. While she’s been quite upfront about the pains she took to write and publish Harry Potter, what most readers remember about her writing process is that one day while she was riding a train, “the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into [her] head.”  Voila!

Or take the ever-controversial Stephanie Meyer. She claims the idea for Twilight came to her in a dream on June 2, 2003. Presto!

All of this may be true, and certainly all ideas show up sometime and somewhere, but our obsession with when and where ideas come strikes me as misguided, for the “inspiration myth” favors idea over craft.

I’ve been teaching beginning creative writing classes at BYU-Idaho this year, and I think the “inspiration myth” is misleading a lot of young writers. Too many of them succumb to the easy belief that one day inspiration will come, and when it does, they’ll have whole novels in their heads.

Overemphasizing the power of inspiration is dangerous because we can use that belief to remain stagnant. If our writing careers have failed to take off, the “inspiration myth” allows us to believe that’s only because we haven’t had the right idea yet. This little lie lets us ignore the more important aspects of our craft, like the need to spend more time revising or reading or seriously overhauling our prose.

And the “inspiration myth” also offers us a convenient excuse. If we never do make it as writers, well then, that’s not our fault. The muse never favored us. The idea never “fell into our heads” or “came to us in dreams,” and we can’t really be blamed for that, can we?

So I’m skeptical of inspiration’s power. I’m skeptical of “good ideas.” Because I know the real business of writing takes place in the everyday, in the monotonous painstaking routine, in the endless hours of honing a story again and again and again. True, this thought isn’t comforting. Unlike the “inspiration myth,” it offers no easy path to writing success. It promises only work and effort and sweat, which is exactly why I believe it.

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18 Responses to The Writer’s Desk: Ideas Are Cheap; Inspiration’s a Moonshine

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Josh,

    I find that I agree with about 2/3 of what you’ve said: namely, the part about inspiration not taking the place of hard work when it comes to writing, and the part about not waiting passively for inspiration to strike. The place I part company is where you seem to be devaluing the importance of a good idea.

    I’ll agree with your statement that ideas are cheap. Good ideas, though — that’s a different matter. Part of learning to be a good writer, I suspect, lies in learning how to tell the good ideas from the bad ones — and then putting in the hard work to both generate that multitude of ideas and then sift out the ones that have worth.

    Obviously, there are limits to this. Different ideas are “good” for different writers — and no idea is good enough to survive bad treatment. So in the end, I think I’m agreeing with the major thrust of what you’re saying, but with the suggestion that we recognize the idea-generating phase of storytelling as also important — and involving both hard work and craft.

    • Josh Allen says:

      Jonathan,

      Thanks for your reply. Of course, writers need to “sift ideas” as you say, for good writers will have more ideas than they can possibly write. But you’re talk about “good ideas” and “bad ideas” has me thinking. Is there really such a thing as a poor idea or is there only poor execution?

      Take, for example, Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road (a book that creates heated feelings, I’ll concede, but a book that I loved). This book is essentially about a man who’s wandering through a cannibalistic, post-apocalyptic wasteland, intent on delivering his son to a safe place.

      Fantasy and science fiction writers know this idea is not new. On hearing the premise or idea for this novel, critics could easily say, “Post-apocalyptic wasteland? The father as protector? Skip it. It’s been done.” So why did the book win a Pulitzer? Not because the idea was new and interesting, but because the execution was poetic and elegant. (Of course, the Pulitzer Prize isn’t necessarily proof of excellent art, but in this case, I think the Pulitzer folks got it right.)

      In fact, I’m not comfortable calling any idea “bad.” In the hands of a skilled writer, even an old idea can become powerful once again (Robert Frost, anyone?). I wonder, can even the worst ideas in the hands of a skilled enough writer eventually turn into art?

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        Thinking about this more deeply… I think that a “bad idea” is not the same thing as an “old idea.” An old idea is probably a good idea that’s been done often enough that it will strike the reader as tired if not done in a new way. A bad idea, by contrast, is one that simply isn’t interesting enough to carry the weight of a story. Or one that includes within it the seeds of its own contradiction. Or one that could be pretty easily solved if the main character (or the author) got a brain. Or one that includes no dramatic tension.

        Bad ideas can, I suppose, sometimes be turned into good ideas through digging into them in more depth. At that point, though, I’d argue that what you’re working with isn’t the old bad idea that’s been somehow turned into a good story, but rather a new good idea that has been developed out of a not-so-promising original idea. The idea isn’t just the original idea; rather, it’s subject to a revision and refinement process, like any other element of storytelling.

        I also think Kathleen’s comment below is spot-on: no story is based on a single idea in isolation, but typically on multiple ideas. Maybe, then, it’s not so much a case of generating “a” good idea as of generating a set of ideas that work well together. It may be true that no single idea in isolation is bad enough that it can’t become part of a good story–but it would need to be wedded with other ideas that make it good, in my opinion, before that could ever happen.

        My basic point is that work *is* needed on the idea-generating, idea-selecting, and idea-refinement level. Not all ideas are created equal–and one of the ingredients of a good story is good ideas.

  2. Moriah Jovan says:

    Oh, ideas ideas ideas. I’m an idea packrat. Seriously.

    I write them all down on little sticky notes or anything at all… Toss them in a box. I’ll write a couple of lines (a couple of words) in a Word doc and save it in my ideas folder. I have tons of ideas from years and years back. Sometimes I sit down and go through them and have myself a little stroll down Remembery Lane. Sometimes I surprise myself with how good (or bad) I was in X year. I kept interesting things that came across the desk of whatever place I was temping at. I have a doozy of a divorce deposition that would be a wallbanger for lack of verisimilitude if it were labeled FICTION. I have little snips here and there, just one or two words, and it forces me to dig to remember what that was, and suddenly, an entire plot blooms in my head that I’d completely forgotten.

    I keep them because they’re valuable to me. Yes, my ideas are valuable. Any one little thing can give me flashes of insight or take whatever current story I’m working on in an entirely new and exciting directly. Ideas are like falling in love. Ideas are like $20 you find in your winter coat the first time you put it on that winter. Ideas are like shiny new toys on Christmas morning. Ideas are like a weekend away from the kids with your husband at a romantic little bed and breakfast.

    It’s because I know what to do with my ideas. (Which is the part where I’m agreeing with the OP.)

    The first time I was ever approached about an idea, I was 15 or 16. My dad said, “You know, if you want to write, here’s an idea… [insert elaborate plot here].” I just stared at him, completely confused, because I knew he could paint and write (at a talented untrained level, although I don’t know how I knew that because I was so very young), and I couldn’t figure out why he couldn’t just write it himself. He said, “Well? What do you think?” I said, “I have no interest in that story. Why would I write a story I don’t care about? You care about it. You write it.” He didn’t like that answer. Somewhere, in my soul, I knew he was afraid to.

    “Write it yourself” and “It’s been done” are my standard answers, but I can’t remember the last time somebody came to me with an idea. Everyone who knows me knows I have a gazillion ideas that are a gazillion times BETTER than theirs, and they a) would rather spend time in MY head than host me in theirs, and b) know not to waste my time with dumb ideas. (How’s that for arrogant?)

  3. I agree with you, Josh, and with Jonathan too. I wouldn’t want to underplay the importance of a good idea. Like Moriah, I probably have dozens of first paragraphs in my writing file–ideas, or inspirations if you will, that were worth the first paragraph but never amounted to anything else. Sometimes it’s a matter of timing, which is why I save all those snippets. Some have turned into some pretty good writing years later. But I do think that hard work, the craft of writing, is the soul of a story or article. Those who have never done any serious writing often have no idea how difficult it is. I too get those phone calls, usually from a relative or ward member, and because I have a small publishing company, people think I should not only help them write the story, but that I should publish it also. Usually, I’m pretty frank with them and try to give them a realistic picture of what goes into the writing and production of a book, though I don’t like to be too discouraging. Who knows from whence the next great writer will emerge?

  4. Marianne Hales Harding says:

    Yes, my standard answer is a form of “write it yourself” too :) What I actually say is, “What a great play for you to write!” This exasperates the potential co-author (another thing I find annoying…the idea that “coming up with the idea” is half the work…”coming up with the idea” and doing no actual writing is worth a special thanks note in the program and nothing more!) and eventually they stop coming to me with ideas. Well, this works for everyone except my mom, who still comes to me with “a wonderful idea for a new poem” even though I’m not, technically, a poet.

  5. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I’m with Josh. Any idea can become a great work of art in the right hands.

    I recently had a guy from my writing group want to co-write a book with me. He explained that I’m always trying to be artistic and that no one will publish that. So he wanted me to generate the idea, write a chapter, give it to him, and he’d basically turn it into something people would really read. Then I could have it back and make it sound pretty. We’d do this with every chapter. oh boy. Guy hasn’t had a thing published. Ever. I elbowed him hard in the ribs and then so, “Oh sorry. Gosh, good idea, but no thanks. I’m busy with my own projects.” Then I kicked him on the way out the door.

    I’ve never understood how people successfully co-write fiction. I don’t beleive it can be an even thing. I don’t understand how any writer could WANT to co-write. Of course, Josh isn’t talking about people who actually want to do any writing. But that’s how I think it’d have to turn out in most c0-writing situations. Like classroom group work, there’s always one person who really does the work while the others cost and chat.

    • Wow, Lisa, nervy guy. I’ve seen some interesting co-written works where the two writers alternate chapters (as my brother has done with several textbooks), but I don’t know how you actually co-write the same text. That would make an interesting post here if anyone has done it. My husband and I tried that once and it was almost the end of a beautiful relationship.

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      My apologies for that horribly written post. I really should re-read.

  6. I remember hearing Jane Yolen (published science fiction and fantasy writer for adults and younger people) speak on this topic, and one of her points was that people who call with ideas seem to think the idea is the hard part, as Josh says. Little do they know….

    My response when someone offers an idea is to ask them why they don’t think they can write it. And then I suggest that they get some kind of audio digital recording device and record the story as they tell it, either to themselves (while looking in a mirror, if necessary) or to a group of listeners. Then have the recording transcribed and printed out. That will help them overcome the Dreaded Pile of Blank Pieces of Paper that can be so daunting. Once they have something on paper, I tell them, I’d be happy to help them with the editing and to offer suggestions on rewrites. They thank me, and so far, I haven’t ever heard from one again.

    Ideas can’t be copyrighted because they are so common and so universal (and almost never unique). What is unique is the combination. I’ve heard more than one published writer point out that a story isn’t just one idea. A story requires at least two ideas working together and in tension, and the longer the story the more ideas you may need. So you sift through your pile of ideas and you pick a couple at random and ask yourself how they could work together in a story. And by combining, you come up with something that has much better odds of being “new and different.” And then comes the work of writing and getting feedback and rewriting and getting more feedback and polishing and so on.

    So, thank you, Josh. I say let’s not destroy the “inspiration myth” entirely, though. Let’s just put it in its place.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      I don’t think inspiration is a myth, but for the purposes of the discussion, let’s relabel it: overactive subconscious.

      Springboarding off one of Jonathan’s comments: I don’t think there are bad ideas. I think there are insufficient and inefficient ideas.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      From my seat in the peanut gallery inspiration is the moment where those two (or more) ideas synthesize into something better (and more original) than either idea alone. It’s the result of 1) packing individual ideas into your head, 2) worrying over them and pondering over a wide variety of combinations, and 3) working the details (and doing the research that accompanies it) until a whole story appears.

      Which is where a lot of the “I have an idea” folk seem to misunderstand the nature of the creative process—they have a single idea and presume the rest is just detail. But a single idea in isolation almost never gets it done. A vignette is not a story, though a skill teller can often make you wonder.

      Which is why the myth of the Muse sticks so aggressively in my craw. As someone with absolutely no Art in his soul I have never been struck out of the blue by an idea that didn’t have its antecedent in simple hard work and exposure to a wide variety of inputs (both active and passive). Some stories coalesce more easily than others, but all of them come of simple time on task—whether that time is conscious or subconscious.

      Of course you can turn a weak idea into an adequate (or even a good) one. A fine writing teacher (Algis Budrys) once suggested that while a good writer can turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, why not just start with silk and make the whole process simpler?

  7. Screenwriter Robert Ben Garant: “What people need to embrace and accept, if you’re going to be a writer in Hollywood, is that every single movie has the exact same structure, exactly, whether it’s Die Hard or Night at the Museum . . . But the problem that a lot of young screenwriters have–and by that, I mean the baristas at Starbucks–is that they are struggling because they think formula is a bad word.”

    http://www.npr.org/2011/07/05/137617840/you-too-can-be-a-successful-screenwriter

    • Scott Parkin says:

      My favorite formulation of the successful screenplay was the nine-act story structure used by pretty much all blockbuster films.

      Sadly, I’ve long since forgotten where I first read it, but here is a recent re-presentation that covers the core.

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      Ug. Structure is not the same as formula.

      • Scott Parkin says:

        Nice ug…got any detail on that? It seems to me that while not all structure is formula, all formulas are structured.

        Eugene’s point that formed stories are not necessarily a bad thing aims at the heart of the idea that many writers feel that adopting a successful framework for delivering a story somehow takes the art out of it. I would argue that art is less about the structure (or the formula) than it is about the author’s approach.

        But I never claimed to be an artist (I’m at best a craftsman), so I would appreciate enlightenment on the subject.

  8. Scott Parkin says:

    I think people often mistake the moment of synthesis (the epiphany or ah-hah moment) with original inspiration. Jo Rowling may have experienced the unity of the Harry Potter story in a flash of insight, but I guarantee you that the details were already in her head, if in different form.

  9. D. Michael Martindale says:

    Sometimes a great idea is enough. Stephenie Meyer is proof of that.

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