A wannabe writer recently said to me, “My ideas just pop out of nowhere. There are so many of them that I can’t think where to begin!”
That was part of her trouble. She was afloat in a sea of ideas, perfectly happy in her bubble bath world. But soap bubbles soon pop and disappear. So do idea bubbles if you don’t do something to stabilize them. In my experience, this is done by writing them down, then testing them out. I don’t believe for a minute that ideas spring out of nowhere. They all come from some connection we make, perhaps from a long-forgotten memory, perhaps from a current event. They may have shallow roots, but they are rooted. It is up to the discerning writer to determine whether or not an idea is substantial enough to become the basis for a larger work.
Here is an exercise I do with the class I teach on Writing Your Memoirs. It has been instrumental not only in retrieving memories, but in helping writers move from idea to paragraph, to vignette, to story.
- Think back to an elementary school you attended. Focus on one classroom. Close your eyes and picture the desks, the board, the teacher’s desk, the windows, the clock on the wall.
- Do you remember where you sat?
- Who sat next to you? Behind you? In front of you?
- What was your teacher’s name?
- Where did you eat lunch and with whom did you eat it? (Did you carry your lunch or buy it at school? If you carried it, was it in a brown paper bag or a lunch box? Did you have a thermos? What was in it? What was your favorite lunch? Did you make it yourself, or did you have a surprise when you opened it?)
- Who was your best friend at school?
- Who was your worst enemy?
- Do you remember a special project?
- Do you remember any special parties or celebrations?
- What was your favorite subject?
- What subject did you dread?
- Can you remember an embarrassing moment? A success or failure?
- Can you describe how you felt when you were with your best friend,? When you got 100 on a spelling teset? When you got chosen last to be on a team?
- What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
Answer these questions with as many remembered details as possible. Write the answers down, letting the words flow freely. Take your time with this exercise. Feel free to stop at any one question and let the details take shape.
Now choose one incident that springs from these memories and describe it more fully. Include characters and dialogue. When you are finished, analyze what you have written. Do you have (1) a short retelling of the facts or (2) have you created a vignette — a scene that could potentially be part of a larger work?
Do you find that you want to write more . . . to browse through your childhood memories and develop those ideas that have lain dormant, but are now ripe for the picking? More power to you. You may well be on your way to a short story or even to a completed scene in a book!
So stop reading this blog and get busy writing! Let me know what success you have in harvesting your memories and turning them into workable ideas.