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The Very Idea

by Lesléa Newman, Spalding MFA Faculty, Writing for Children and Young Adults.

The question I am most frequently asked by writers and non-writers alike is “Where do you get your ideas?” Sometimes I joke and say, “I take a trip down to the idea shop.” Other times I recite a laundry list: things I’ve experienced, things I’ve read about, things other people have told me….. Rarely do I answer with the truth, which is that I honestly don’t know. I really have no idea where ideas come from. And this terrifies me.

Every time I finish a piece of writing, whether it’s a poem, story, essay, novel, or children’s book, I am back to square one. A blank page. Which to me is the scariest thing in the world. Many writers I know have notebooks and computer files full of ideas. Some of them have so many ideas they don’t know where to start. Alas, I am not this type of writer.

A colleague of mine once complained to me about his undergraduate students. “They don’t even know what to write about,” he grumbled. I said nothing, afraid that I too, would be so harshly judged. Like my colleague’s undergrads, I often find myself in that very same place, with nothing to write about. When I am stuck and feel like I have nothing to say, I truly believe that my writing life is over and I will never have an idea again. I know that’s absurd. I know one doesn’t lose one’s ability to write the way one loses a set of keys or a pair of reading glasses. I know this. But it doesn’t help. The feeling of terror is very, very real.

So what can one do when in this position? Here is what I do when I am out of ideas.

Read literature. Reading other people’s work often inspires me. Sometimes a word or a phrase will conjure up a memory for me. Patricia Smith’s poem, “When the Burning Begins,” which is about a little girl cooking with her daddy in the kitchen, reminded me of being a little girl cooking with my father in the kitchen and inspired me to write the poem “How to Make Matzo Brei” and the children’s book A Sweet Passover both of which were published.

Read a newspaper. I don’t know who first said “truth is stranger than fiction” but he or she had a point. There are so many bizarre, interesting, unbelievable, infuriating, heartbreaking stories happening to real people every single day. Sometimes I’ll write a monologue in the voice of someone from a newspaper story and see where that might take me. Other times I’ll use a headline as a title. The sports page is particularly good for this. For example, wouldn’t “Cowboys on the Clock” make a great title for a children’s book?

Take a walk. When I just can’t stare at a blank piece of paper any more, I get away from my desk. Sometimes inspiration strikes when I am not thinking about writing. Long walks can air out the mind. While walking, I let my mind wander. Sometimes an idea pops into my head when I least expect it (this often happens while driving, gardening, or taking a shower). One cannot write 24 hours a day. Though my poetry teacher Peter Orlovsky used to say, “You’re always writing the poem.” Meaning that a writer is writing even when not writing. Trust that things are happening below the surface.

Take a nap: I often dream in words, not pictures. When I’m lucky the gift of a sentence greets me right before I awake. When that happens, I write the sentence down and go on from there. My children’s book, Pigs, Pigs, Pigs! started out this way. I woke up with the sentence, “The pigs are coming today, hooray, the pigs are coming today,” galloping through my brain. Where did it come from? I haven’t a clue. I’m just grateful for the gift.

Ask for help: In desperation, I ask my friends, colleagues, spouse, anyone and everyone for an idea. My friend Roger once said to me, “My pals call me ‘The Boy Who Cried Fabulous.’ Wouldn’t that be a good title for a children’s book?” I thought so, wrote it, and sold it!

Pick a form, any form: When I can’t think of a subject to write about, I pick a form such as a pantoum, villanelle, sestina, or sonnet. Sometimes just working with language will lead to something. And even if it doesn’t, it’s good practice!

Describe something: William Carlos Williams said, “No ideas but in things.” Charles Simic wrote, “Go inside a stone.” Just as an artist sketches a vase, a piece of fruit, a landscape, I sometimes place an object in front of me and sketch it in words. One can also do this with a photograph or painting or postcard. An image can and does often wake up the creative mind.

Write anyway: When I have nothing to write about, I often write about having nothing to write about. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but I have filled many notebooks with this type of writing.  (“I have nothing to say today. Blah blah blah. Maybe I should give up this writing business and become a plumber. I wonder what I should have for lunch….”) Eventually, this kind of drivel does lead to something else. But one has to be patient. And put in one’s time. As Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” And the way for a writer to prepare her mind is to write. I never know what, if anything, is going to come out of my pen on any given day. It could be terrible. It could be brilliant. There are no guarantees except this one: On any given day, if I don’t write, nothing will come out of my pen.

And there you have it. I have come to the end of this little essay. What shall I write next? I have no idea. So I guess it’s time to take another trip down to the idea shop. See you there.


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