by Don Fry
(excerpted from his book Writing Your Way: Creating a Writing Process that Works for You)
Ever noticed how some people keep finding things? You walk down a street with them, and they spot the $50 bill that you didn’t see. How do they do that? Well, it’s not just luck. “You can see a lot,” Yogi Berra allegedly said, “just by observing.”
Some writers keep finding good ideas for writing that others don’t, and you’re about to learn how to become one of those apparently lucky authors.
In the idea stage, you come up with an idea, you develop it, and you imagine the process to come: gathering information, organizing it, and typing it into a finished piece.
The quality and speed of the whole project depends on how well you begin and how smoothly your writing and production processes work.
One day, I watched my colleague Roy Clark stand on a sidewalk in St. Petersburg, surrounded by a gaggle of beginning writing students. Roy wanted to show them that they live among ideas ripe for picking. He turned slowly in a circle for thirty minutes, pointing and asking questions:
- What are all those antennas on top of Woolworth’s?
- Why are people standing in line in front of H&R Block, the tax preparer, in July?
- How do these trees planted in a sidewalk get water?
- Why are the concrete blocks in this sidewalk hexagonal, and what’s inscribed on them?
- Where does that cat live? What do strays living downtown eat?
- Who shops in The Wig Villa, and what do they buy?
Roy taught the students to question the world around them. If you see the world in terms of people interacting for reasons, you’ll find all the ideas you’ll ever need.
Curiosity, attention, a little bravado, and a willingness to break routines lead to great writing ideas. You lurk, listen, ask questions, and find experts. You can prowl the Internet, but the best ideas come from face to face interaction with people.
The best ideas are subjects that other writers haven’t written about, or haven’t noticed. The following techniques work because they dynamite you out of your routine ways of thinking and dealing with the world. They make the world “strange,” so you can see it fresh.
1. MAKE THE CONTEXT LARGER OR SMALLER:
Think larger and smaller at the same time. Enlarge the context to find the bigger subject in a wider perspective or a longer time frame. Narrow the context by finding individuals who exemplify something large. When writing about animals you might expand to the whole farm or shrink to only the horses, or to one cat.
2. EXPLAIN COMMON THINGS:
Ask experts to explain how ordinary things work, preferably things invisible to the public. For example, how does your town’s water-purification system work? What happens to recycled plastic? How do wine aerators work? What do lifeguards look for? What makes chocolate taste good?
3. MAKE THE INVISIBLE VISIBLE:
Find people who operate prominent objects and processes where you live. For example, interview the operator on top of a T-crane. Find out how college students game the registration system. Search out the person who controls traffic lights before and after large events. Talk with football trainers about how they deal with on-the-spot injuries.
4. MINE YOUR EMOTIONS:
Explore your own reactions. If something bothers or puzzles you, find out why by interviewing people with similar reactions. You’ll discover you’re not alone in stupidly opening junk mail, never changing your passwords, buying lottery tickets, or your fear of high bridges. I’ve always wondered if my parents were really my parents, which turns out to be a fairly common doubt.
5. STUDY THE PAST IN THE PRESENT:
Think about things, such as a monument or a photograph, to find the past continuing to influence the present. My father died, and I poked through all his Navy gear, discovering that everything I knew about what he did in World War II was wrong. Look at a picture of your mother at your current age; then look in a mirror. It’ll lead to thoughts about what you inherit, and what you don’t.
6. CHOOSE THINGS RANDOMLY:
Read a different magazine every week at random. I learned this trick from Don Murray, the first writing coach. Picture Don as a tall, fat man with a Santa Claus beard, dressed in shorts and shower shoes. He’d back up to a newsstand rack and buy the first magazine he touched. Then he’d pay particular attention to the fringes: little ads, personals, letters to the editor. The randomness leads you to worlds you haven’t imagined, such as the symbolism behind professional wrestling, families who shelter strangers’ dying babies, the physics and chemistry of sand traps, how grocery stores position candy in the checkout line to attract toddlers, or how to hire a hit man. You can use this trick in a public library, but don’t dress like Don Murray.
7. STORE THINGS RANDOMLY:
Develop a storage system for ideas you can use later, such as a drawer full of 3 x 5 cards, notebooks, a “Miscellaneous” hanging file (I use this one), or computer caches. Encourage yourself to browse by not organizing it at all. Roy Clark calls this “composting,” turning over the trash until it matures. I often gather great quotations that have nothing to do with what I’m working on, so I write them on a card and toss it into my “Future” file, along with the name and phone number of the speaker. My stash also includes clippings, recordings, jottings, pictures, maps, and even pieces of gadgets.
8. FOLLOW ALTERNATIVE PATHS:
Take alternate routes to your normal destinations, and try out different types of transportation, especially slower ones that let you see more. Leave your car at home and walk to work, or ride a bike. Climb stairs instead of taking elevators, take the service elevator, or enter through back doors. The best idea collector I ever met was Mike Foley, who jogged five miles every morning before work, taking a different route every time and jotting down things he saw on a pad.
9. CULTIVATE WEIRDOS:
Your mother taught you never to talk with strangers. Good advice for children, bad advice for writers. Strike up conversations with people you don’t know, even cultivating weirdos. Introduce yourself to airplane seatmates, to people carrying a sign or wearing a nametag. “Wait a minute,” you object, “I’m too shy for that.” I am too, so I say to myself, “I’m a writer, so I have a license to talk to strangers,” and just forge ahead.
10. LOWER YOUR STANDARDS:
Accept any piece of paper handed to you on the street. Read junk mail. Watch awful TV shows and ask why they appeal to anyone. Get beyond easy condescension. Ask why teenagers who don’t cook watch the Food Channel. Attend get-rich-quick workshops and pay attention to the audiences. Buy TV gadget offers, test them, and try to get your money back.
11. EAVESDROP ON STRANGERS:
Lurk in busy places and eavesdrop to find out what people are doing and thinking. High school grandstands, food courts in malls, and baggage-claim areas all have diverse mixtures of people. In a lecture or business presentation, watch for the reactions of members of the audience and interview them later. Many Silicon Valley companies have a favorite hotel where they lodge candidates for jobs; you can grab scoops in the breakfast room just by listening. I once rode on a bus behind two teenagers. One girl turned and surveyed the passengers, including me, looked back at her companion and lamented, “No movie stars here.” Bingo: several ideas about fame, absurd expectations, and vanity.
12. MAKE YOURSELF INTO SOMEBODY ELSE:
Role-play the lives of people with viewpoints different from yours or your readers’. I once spent half a day in a wheelchair and learned about hazards I never imagined. Did you know you can burn your knees on hot water pipes under a sink? Bob Graham, the former governor of Florida, did manual labor one day a month to understand his public.
13. SEEK RANDOM FRIENDS:
Extend your personal life outside your writer friends and your own economic group. You might join a Civil War reenactors group, take a course in blacksmithing, or sing Handel’s Messiah in a chorus. My sister, Sandra, sampled most of the churches where she lives, by attending services over a year.
14. SCARE YOURSELF SAFELY:
Make a list of things you fear and find a way to experience them safely. You might spend a Saturday night in a hospital emergency room, just observing. You could design a dinner party that includes a dish that might flop, such as a soufflé, and write about the disaster or about cooks’ anxiety or about culinary triumph. I’m terrified of damage to my eyes, but I once wrote an article on blinding giants in Homer’s Odyssey and Norse sagas.
15. KEEP MOVING AROUND:
Move around at any event to get as many viewpoints as possible. Stay far away from any other writers present. Don’t be satisfied with what you learn in the press box or a corporate skybox; get out with fans and the action. Find the staging areas for a parade and where it breaks up.
All of these techniques jar you out of your normal vision, because that’s where the ideas are, invisible in plain sight.