Ideation (Making Narrative Happen)

A while back, before I considered myself a writer, I thought, “if only I had some good ideas.” Now, I have an over-abundance of ideas, and I’m thinking a great deal more about process, where ideas come from and how they are developed. To my mind, ideas come in two basic forms:

The Ah-ha: this comes to mind in dreams or due to random encounters, or seemingly from nowhere at all. When I get these, I leap up and grab a pen, or quickly make a voice memo, before the idea slips away. These ideas apparently can’t tolerate the distractions of real life. Someone really should conduct a study wherein electrodes are attached to writers (kinda like research on meditating Buddhist monks) to see what is going on when this happens.

The What-if: a seed that is consciously pursued. I sit down and ask specific questions meant to generate possible ideas for use. I make a list of concepts or items. Maybe a useful notion comes out of this, and maybe not. The key here, I think, is to throttle your inner editor and entertain anything that comes to mind, no matter how absurd it seems. It may be that the more absurd the idea appears, the better.

At Clarion West, I worked concepts from both categories into narratives, and if I got stuck, I did something that my pre-CW self may have thought unthinkable. I went to the nearest library (I was lucky to be within walking distance of the absolutely gorgeous and inspiring reading room in the Suzzallo Library at the U of Washington), and grabbed a random book from the shelf. Historical events, animals, gender theory, poetry, or any topic at all might serve to spark linkage in a story, give me setting details or provide background for a character.

A new short in progress enjoyed a similar boost yesterday when I happened upon a book full of disturbing images of collectible dolls from the turn of the century.

Elements for ideation can come from random sources; it’s what you do with them that makes narrative happen.

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9 thoughts on “Ideation (Making Narrative Happen)”

  1. Great post! I think I rely too much on the A-ha method for most of my projects, which means I spend a lot of time watching and waiting. I will try picking up a book for inspiration. Right now, music has been a wonderful what-if tool for me. I love listening to a song and creating a story from the tune’s mood.

    And I miss Suzallo Library. :]

  2. Watching is good, too. I pick up all kinds of interesting ideas from overheard conversations.

    I’m so glad we had the Suzzallo. I think it will always be my favorite writing spot.

  3. Oh, Suzzallo. Could a better writing spot exist?

    I had a spectacular burst of inspiration in the shower at Clarion West, around 1 am. Definitely an “Ah-ha!” moment! I spent the rest of that week of writing to trying to capture it in story form–and I think I only barely did. Like you say, I’m not sure it tolerated the intervening “real-life” minutes that I needed to get across the hall to my note-pad!

  4. I miss the Suzzallo! And I neglected to mention the added advantage of being an excellent place to nap, but I don’t think it’s an advertised feature.

    Sounds like you need a waterproof writing tablet!

  5. I think(from my personal experience), that the best “AHA!” moments came close the bottom of a bottle of cheap rum, vodka, or about a dozen malt liquors.

  6. Frustratingly, I get ALL SORTS of ‘ah-ha’ moments and do everything I can to chase them down, only to (frequently) end up at (seemingly) dead ends. Likewise, I often go through a similar process when trying to plant the ‘what-if’ seed.

    But then I’ll find stuff from the seemingly-fruitless-chase-to-a-dead-end cropping up as valuable stuff in some other totally unrelated project, and YAY-it-was-worth-it-after-all!
    So.. there you go.
    Here’s to the power of grabbing a pen and marking it down in which ever way.

    btw, LOVE that you doodle on your notes.

  7. Thanks for the doodle-love (high praise)!

    I’m a fan of the “chase it down” method, too, and I love those ideas that come back later to bear fruit. Sometimes, I wonder where the ideas actually come from because they so often surprise me that way.

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