Dan Szczesny answers the question “Where do you get your ideas?” with insight and humor—and a helpful look into the heart of a writer’s life.
Recently, after a book presentation event at a local library, an attendee approached me with kind words about the talk. Then, she said, “So, where do you get your ideas?”
That’s a fairly common question, and understandable. In my latest collection of short fiction, Sing, and Other Short Stories, readers are transported from the Alaska tundra to 1930s South Dakota to present-day New England. I have a fairly pat answer ready detailing my character and outline process where I collect tidbits and scene ideas throughout the course of my everyday life, then assemble them into some sort of functioning narrative during my scheduled writing time.
She nodded, glassy eyed, then sighed, “It must be nice to have such an active muse.” Yup, people say stuff like that. That’s the Myth of the Magic Writer and I’ve spent most of my career trying desperately to debunk it.
The script is the same. Writers have their heads in the clouds, eyes cast dreamily out the office window, sipping coffee (or bourbon) waiting for the gentle touch of their muse to direct them toward a story. Here are the top five “Magic Writer” myths and how the working writer can dispel them.
Writers have muses. Not me. Writing is a brutal grind, a sort of deep psychic punishment that involves slow, meticulous effort and practice and dedication. It’s a job that has been crafted and molded in my brain over the course of two decades. My ideas arrive because I’ve been doing this all my life and I know what plot structure, and dialogue, and red herrings, and character development means. I don’t say that to brag, but rather as an illustration of the fact that writers draw on education and learning and experience, just like any crafts-person would.
You need to write everyday to live! The myth of the daily writer has grown in relation to the popularity of National November Writing Month (NaNoWrMo), the organization that promotes and runs a yearly contest to motivate writers to write 50,000 words in a month. I’ve done it and I love it. But the myth that the only path to success for a writer is to write everyday is nonsense. No other industry demands and pushes the idea of working EVERY SINGLE DAY. Doctors don’t perform surgery every day. Garbage men don’t collect garbage every day. Create a working schedule for yourself, just like any other professional. Take days off, just like any other professional. Forcing words out of your brain every day will likely result in making those words terrible.
You’re frustrated that “real life” is always getting in the way. This one drives me nuts. First, writing is my real life. Why? Because it’s a job. Second, real life is where I get my story ideas. Again, we are faced with the myth that characters and scenes and dialogue just drop into our brains from on high. The reality is that ideas come from living.
>Would I not have to make lunch for my child, or wash the dishes, or visit family if I wasn’t a writer? Of course not. Real life isn’t a chore to get over with a quickly as possible. Real life is what energizes and drives your writing.
Inspiration can come at any moment and must be reckoned with immediately. Nope. I do not have a dream journal. I don’t go running off to the writing cave to jot down some remembered bit of story idea. I occasionally will use a Notes App on my phone if I wish to jostle my memory later.
But my office is a work office, just like any other regular job. In the morning, I shower, shave, get a cup of coffee and turn on my light. And write. The stories come when I want them to, during work hours.
Writing is romantic. Oh, no it isn’t! Just ask my wife. Writers as a collective community suffer badly from a problem of image and perception. Google “writer” and look at the images. Typewriter. Ink well. Typewriter key. A picture of some 16th Century fop day-dreaming with his quill. Now Google “doctor.” See the difference? No pictures of 18th Century medicine men about to apply leaches, are there?
Our profession is stopped in time. In order to be taken seriously, we need to break out of the mythology of the romantic writer. Because you know what else goes along with those archaic images? Being poor. Do you think any of those doctors you just looked up are going to work for free, or for a positive Tweet? Neither should we. Be professional, then maybe the compensation will follow.
Dan Szczesny is a long-time journalist and author living in New Hampshire. He’s written three books, including The Nepal Chronicles, an account of his marriage in Nepal and unguided trek to Everest Base Camp. His publishing credits include Huffington Post, Good Men Project, Yahoo Parenting and the Buffalo Spree. For more information, check out www.danszczesny.com
Image: Pedro Rebeiro Simões / Flicker
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