Every writer knows you can't sit down in front of a notebook or computer screen and wait for ideas to simply show up. You'd better have some ideas before you sit down, and you'd better figure out a system for harvesting those ideas.
Ironically—and happily—one of the best ways to achieve this is to do...nothing. Well, not nothing, exactly. Think of it as "creative lollygagging."
Picture yourself as a satellite dish. The way a dish receives signals is a decidedly passive activity, but nothing comes in until the equipment is properly charged and opened to the universe. A few years ago, ensconced in one of my "brewing" modes—done with my last novel, waiting for the next to come a-knockin'—I decided to take my dish to the beach and open 'er up.
About a half-mile into my walk, I noticed a friendly spark among the small rocks and found bits of frosted glass—triangular shards worn to a gem-like smoothness by sand and waves. I remembered the fascination I felt as a child—that nature could take a piece of man-made litter and make it so beautiful. I walked a little farther, discovered another smattering and had the following thought: What if someone became so obsessed with frosted glass that he decided to make it his life's work?
I didn't know it yet, but the satellite dish had just taken in an entire novel.
But not just that: It also took in the process for imagining a novel. In the following months, as I continued my beach hikes in search of frosted glass (if my character was obsessed, I had to be obsessed), I discovered an intriguing pattern. I arrived at the beach between chapters (my characters dangling in midair, awaiting their instructions); I left with pocketfuls of glass and my next chapter, nicely mapped out in my head.
If you subtly stimulate your other senses—in this case, tactile (the glass) and auditory (the ocean)—you can take the "edge" away from your conscious, purposive mind, return the satellite dish to a state of active passivity and open yourself to the forces of serendipity. And if you come to the beach for frosted glass, you'll also get ideas for your story, slipping in along your peripheral vision.
A CREATIVE LOLLYGAGGERS TO-DO LIST
The key to successful lollygagging is to do it creatively. So what makes lollygagging creative lollygagging? Let's look at the basic elements. First, consider activity. We are not talking about sitting around on a couch. Just as a satellite dish needs electricity, you need some blood pumping into that brain. Next, consider low focus. The activity shouldn't be so intense that you don't have time to think (Grand Prix and ice hockey are out). Look for a mellow pursuit, surrounded by low-level distractions. Finally, consider separation. If you don't hie thee away from the computer, the television, the bills and the kids, you're headed for a mighty wall o' brain-lock.
Following are some specific types of creative lollygagging to try:
• Mobile (because it's difficult to preoccupy a moving target): biking, hiking, kayaking, rollerblading, a long road or train trip
• Idle pursuits: fly-fishing, horseshoe-tossing, kite-flying, a solo game of eight-ball, a solo game of bowling, a session at the batting cage or driving range
• Boring jobs (for those who simply must be productive): paint the garage, rake the leaves, wash the windows, clean out the roof gutters, mow the lawn
• Dilettantism (effective only if you try something for which you have absolutely no talent): abstract painting, making up tunes on the piano, creating monsters from modeling clay, inventing a ballet to your favorite symphony, pounding on a conga drum.
THE COFFEEHOUSE RITUAL
If you'd like to take this one step further, try incorporating your lollygagging directly into your writing ritual. The Coffeehouse Ritual is a routine I've followed for 15 years, with excellent results (in fact, I used it to write this story).
1. Pick your place: Locate a coffeehouse that's a mile or two from your home (ideally, a 30- to 45-minute walk).
2. The walk-up: Head off at an easy pace (no power-walking, please) and let your thoughts drift. For the first few blocks, you'll likely be occupied by small matters of the day. Don't worry—this is a necessary step, one that will clear out your mind for the work ahead. As you pass the halfway point, your thoughts should turn naturally to the project at hand.
3. Write! Buy a large beverage, find a nonjiggling table and go to it. Note: Keep your coffeehouse sacred. Be polite but not excessively friendly to baristas and regulars. If a friend drops by, tell him that you have five minutes to talk, but then you really need to get back to work. If he's not buying it, tell him you're on deadline.
4. The walk-down: The hike back home is often the most rewarding part of the process. Still adrift on your creative buzz, you may find that your satellite dish is more open than ever. It's a great time to think about what you've written and to contemplate future developments.
As I continued taking my walks along the ocean, searching for inspiration and frosted glass, it began to seem, in fact, that my novel was scattered along the beach, like pirate's treasure, and all I had to do was come along and scoop it up. The real secret, however, came from my protagonist, Frosted Glass Man, as he was helping a neophyte who'd lost her "glass vision."
"Let me guess," he said. "Suddenly you can't tell frosted glass from the Queen of England, and you're sort of losing your place on the sand. Feeling disoriented."
"Yeah. That about describes it."
He grinned. "You're trying too hard. When you begin to lose your sight, just rub the last piece you found, and listen to the ocean."