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Decide to Have an Idea

Where do the pros get their ideas? Five top nonfiction writers discuss the sources of their ideas.

Wouldn’t the writing life be simple if a light bulb illuminated above our heads every time a new idea materialized? We could even deduct our rise in electricity bills as business expenses. A nice fantasy, perhaps, but ideas do not appear supernaturally.

Beginning and experienced writers alike are constantly searching for fresh, provocative, timely, salable ideas. That search needn’t be an awesome task—as we find out when we listen to what some veteran writers have to say about their ideas…and yours.

Judith Viorst: Eavesdropping on ideas

“Most of the ideas I get come from my own conversations, curiosities, interests and personal explorations,” says Judith Viorst. “My article ideas come out of the life I live, think about, eavesdrop on, and am involved in.”

Contributing editor and monthly columnist for Redbook, Viorst speaks in a clear, organized manner that gives one the impression she might never have to revise written first drafts. The author of five books of poems and eight children’s books lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, Milton and her three sons—whom she often writes about. Her book My Mama Says There Aren’t Any Zombies, Ghosts, Vampires, Creatures, Demons, Monsters, Fiends, Goblins or Things was written when her son, Nick, was frightened of monsters. Ideas are often very close to home.

“I’m having a conversation with somebody, or I’m telling somebody a story, or I go to a baby shower where everyone’s talking about getting pregnant, and I’m enjoying myself. Something clicks somewhere in me when I come home, or maybe even at the time: “‘That would really make a good article.’ That seems to happen all the time.”

“Sometimes I’m on the telephone having a social conversation. We’re tugging back and forth on some issue we’re both concerned with, and if we’re concerned about it, then it has some kind of universal application: lots of other people might be concerned, interested, amused by it, or have something to say about it.”

In her search for ideas, Viorst often asks herself, “What are the things that really interest me that are generalizable? I’m not interested in writing about quirky, limited things that only 12 ½ people understand. The best letter I ever got was from a lady who said, ‘I’m a short, plump, blonde Methodist from Iowa, and I think you’re a tall, thin, Jewish person from the East Coast—and we live the same lives.”

The subjects that interest Viorst concern “family life, growth and development of being a woman, the aging process. Even my public concerns seem to coincide with readers’ interests. After Three Mile Island, we sat around talking about it in a lot of living rooms. I’d talk to people I liked and respected—had been on peace marches with—and they were in favor of nuclear power plants. Were they right? Wrong? Let’s find out.”

Viorst researched the subject and wrote a column about it for the February 1980 Redbook. “You must have a passion for the subject in order to write about the idea.”

Once she has an idea, Viorst mentions it over the telephone to editors at Redbook “to make sure others aren’t working on the idea and that it’s in the ballpark of ideas they’re interested in.”

“After Redbook says ‘Yes,’ I write a couple of paragraphs, often including my lead. I indicate the scope and convey the tone I’m going to take. In writing these paragraphs, I clarify to myself that this is an idea with enough body and material to write 2,000 words on. It sets my own limits and inclusions.”

Redbook will say, ‘Yes, go ahead with that idea, but weed out that part because it takes us too far afield, or why don’t you add something, or be sure to mention so-and-so.’ This way there’s an objective document that I and the editors can look at which says, ‘This is what she’s going to write about.”

Viorst advises other writers to enclose an accompanying letter with their queries, using “whatever credit you can mobilize to help you sound professional.” She thinks queries are “seductive. They’re an effort to say, ‘I’ve got a good idea; it’s going to be executed in a pleasing way; it’s going to cover a lot of interesting ground.’ I think you can get that into a few paragraphs.”

Nora Ephron: Benevolent Truth

“I’m a great believer of ‘stealing’ ideas,” says Nora Ephron, who has not yet been arrested for grand larceny. Crazy Salad and Scribble Scribble are two of her article collections, and Heartburn, her first novel, will be published by Knopf in May.

“For example, the lady who cuts my hair knows everything that is happening in New York City two months before everyone else. She was the first person I knew with roller skates; the first person in a pyramid scheme. There are lots of people who will give you ideas if you listen to them. I don’t mean truly stealing ideas, but a lot of your friends will be useful.”

Articles based on Ephron’s ideas have appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Cosmopolitan and Esquire, where she wrote a monthly column from 1972 to 1977. Was she ever stuck with no idea and a fast-approaching deadline?

“I was trained as a newspaper reporter, so there’s no such thing as writer’s block. You get fired for having writer’s block.”

“You can’t sit there and wait for ideas to smash into you. It’s not a passive process. So much of being a nonfiction writer is forcing yourself to find things to write about. It’s an active process at looking at something in the newspaper, or some thing that’s going around, and thinking: ‘How do I feel about this? … Can I get anything out of this? … Can I push myself a little further on this topic?”

Ephron has experienced both sides of the mailbox: she has been a freelance journalist and has held editorial positions at New York magazine and Esquire. “A lot of people starting out will send in a suggestion saying, ‘I want to do a piece on Burt Reynolds.’ They’re not well-known and the editor writes back and says, ‘No thank you.’ Six months later, that writer sees a piece on Burt Reynolds and thinks, ‘That magazine stole my idea!’ Well, interviewing a movie star isn’t an idea.

“The idea is your point of view. You must come up with some little thing that you know about that others don’t. A good journalist figures that out. It means reading everything possible to keep up with what’s going on. You can’t merely find a subject that may interest a magazine editor. Find a subject on which you have something interesting, surprising or perverse to say.”

“When I started out as a magazine writer, I’d get an appointment with a magazine editor and go in with five great ideas, and I couldn’t get an assignment because I wasn’t an established writer. You have to start in small places, which pay less money and are open to new writers, before you can trade up, little by little.”

Maurice Zolotow: Hanging Around

Maurice Zolotow, a contributing editor of Los Angeles magazine, has worked as a fulltime freelance writer since 1941. “Since then, I’ve never had a job. I don’t want a job,” he insists from his home in Hollywood.

He has been called “The Boswell of Broadway” because of his biographies of stage and movie stars. His subjects include Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne and Lynn Fontanne. Zolotow’s forthcoming book, Confessions of a Racetrack Fiend, or How to Pick a 6 and My Other Secrets of Handicapping for the Weekend Horseplayer will be published by St. Martin’s Press in May.

“This book is different from any book I’ve previously written,” says Zolotow, thinking back to the inception of his idea. “About five years ago, I did a story about Martin Ritt for Los Angeles magazine. Ritt is a great movie director, and also an owner of horses. After shooting Norma Rae, Ritt was at the Del Mar race track for the summer with his horses. I went to the track with him and he explained it to me. All of a sudden I went crazy over racing! I became obsessed, and went to Del Mar and started betting.

“After a losing day, I was feeling miserable. I said, ‘I’ve got to get this thing out of my system. I think I’ll write a book.’ Just like that. The words started coming, and I wrote the book in a few months.”

On Thanksgiving Day, 1981, Zolotow finally hit the Pick 6. After taxes, he and his partners split $31,000. It was a perfect way to round out his book. A photocopy of the check appears on the book jacket.

Zolotow’s ideas usually “come out of the blue,” although he admits that they’ve probably been fermenting. He considers himself an inspirational writer. “Ideas take hold, and I can’t seem to do anything about it.”

Before his first trip to Las Vegas, Zolotow had never written about gambling. “Oh my God, Las Vegas!” he recalls in a raspy voice one associates more with gambling than writing. “Why weren’t people writing about this fascinating world? Freelance writers were sleeping. I spent a week with a blackjack counter, and he showed me how he beats blackjack.” Zolotow’s article, Blackjack for Blood, was published in the December 1977 Playboy.

“You get ideas by hanging around. Something hits you and you go with it. Sometimes you give an editor something he doesn’t know he wants until you give it to him. Playboy didn’t know they wanted a blackjack article until I sent them one.”

Zolotow believes that “every human being is a rich universe of ideas. The difficulty is looking into oneself to see what’s around and in one—rather than looking elsewhere. Erma Bombeck is a perfect example.

“Writing is self-expression. A writer hopes his expressions will please editors and their readers. Most of my race-track book is written in the first person. It’ll be of interest to other people because I’m sharing the frustrations and craziness of horse racing.

“Many writers who have great literary and verbal skills do not begin to do well at our trade until they open up to themselves and let it pour out. The great secret is to look into yourself and write.”

Fran Lebowitz: One Sentence at a Time

“More often than not, I sit down at the desk with no ideas,” complains Fran Lebowitz. Anyone familiar with Lebowitz’s acerbic wit knows that this alleged curmudgeon complains about a lot of things in her two bestselling books, Metropolitan Life and Social Studies.

“The advantage of being overly opinionated is that you have an opinion on every subject,” she says before recalling how some of her ideas first arose.

How to Be a Directory Assistance Operator: A Manual “comes from my unpleasant associations several thousand times every month of my life with information operators, because I never use a phone book.”

Pointers for Pets was written because “I knew it would be funny since I didn’t like them. Pets are like people; they sense your dislike and come over to lick your hand.”

The Modern-Day Lives of the Saints originated because “I had a friend who became immerse in Catholicism. I was sitting around her house one day reading hagiographies when I came up with the idea.”

Lebowitz even wrote about houseplants when “they became so prevalent. One day I walked into a restaurant that had previously been a normal restaurant, and suddenly discovered myself in the middle of a South African jungle.”

Not every idea works, however. “You don’t know until you sit down to write. In humor, the form is as important as the idea. You have to find a way to break the idea into smaller pieces—even if it’s an infinitesimal idea.”

Lebowitz throws nothing away. Many of her ideas that didn’t work are now being incorporated into a novel. “I’ve written sentences that I love as sentences, but don’t work in the piece. Of course, I save them in a sentence box. You never know when you can use an extra sentence.”

“Lebowitz’s past professions in New York include driving a taxi, cleaning apartments, bulk mailing, and writing columns for Mademoiselle and Andy Warhol’s Interview. “When I was writing two columns a month, sometimes it was difficult to come up with ideas. I had certain friends that I have a humorous rapport with, and I’d talk to them on the phone until something came up. I made no bones about it. ‘Hello, I have to write a column,’ I’d say, and start talking. It was a way to hear my own voice back. I often found it useful in a pinch. Certain people inspired me or provoked something in me.”

“Concentration is important in coming up with ideas. Your mind is arranged to think for ideas, and instead of letting something go by in conversation, you stopit and use it.”

“Grown-up writers who get up every day who get up every day and write from 9 to 12 and then chop down trees have to think like that all the time. Direct your thinking and concentration toward idea sources—although I find it very easy to lapse into the world of game shows and soap operas, and not pay attention.”

Family Feud is Lebowitz’s favorite game show. Who knows? Maybe we’ll read what she has to say about it soon.

Andy Rooney: Ideas Won’t Save You

“These things I do, are they really ideas? I mean, is a paper clip really an idea? I don’t know if it is,” ponders Andy Rooney from his office in CBS Television Studios, New York City.

The wry 60 Minutes commentator finds ideas in everything from soap to bathtubs, telephones to eyeglasses, and instructions on how to watch television football—never seriously, of course. All you ever wanted to know about glue, neat people, fences, and even dirty words can be found in his bestselling And More by Andy Rooney. His column appears three times weekly in more than 225 newspapers across the country. Rooney’s witty essays come from what might appear to be mundane ideas.

“The notion that an idea will save a writer is probably wrong,” he says. Rooney believes that good writing is essentially more important than the idea itself.

“My advice is not to wait to be struck by an idea. If you’re a writer, you sit down and damn well decide to have an idea. That’s the way to get an idea.”

Our “few minutes with Andy Rooney” are up. He has a deadline and a column to write. And, you can be sure, a new idea.

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