I have a note saved on my iPhone titled, “Best Ideas Ever.” This is the place I put, quite simply, the best ideas ever, ones that come to me when I don’t have a pen handy. Here are a few things I’ve actually written in there:
- Friend dumbed down
- Caffeine mom
- Topless Madonna
- How to Google results
Best ideas ever, right?
The point is, who’s to judge the value of an idea? I happen to think there’s a lot I can milk from “Buttress”—a word that I’m grateful I typed out with absolutely no context—who are you to say otherwise? I’ll call you in 10 years when my film Buttress, based on the novel Buttress by Sapphire, earns a billion quad cubes (what we call money in 10 years)!
But while idea generation is clearly a random byproduct of living one’s life, I need some book-specific ideas in a hurry. I have an upcoming meeting with a potential agent who just wants to sit down, chillax in a super mondo way, and hear any book ideas I may have. Problem is, I have nada right now, so while I know nothing kills creativity like willing yourself to be creative, I’m willing myself as hard as I can.
I find myself in this cycle often. As a freelancer, I’ve gotten into the habit of playing this game where I file ideas away into little categories I’ve created: This one’s a great pitch for The A.V. Club. This one might turn into a pretty funny essay. This one’s just a tweet. This one’s just the word “buttress.” You know, an idea for any occasion. But since I’ve only recently realized I’d like to venture into the world of LIT-era-ture (emphasis on the pretension), my ability to file away ideas into the “book” category is not quite there yet.
So naturally any time I mention I would like to write a book, to which I’m immediately asked the perfectly reasonable follow-up question, “About what?”, my mind draws a blank. The filing cabinet I’ve created in my mind for those ideas hasn’t been filled. I think it’s locked, actually, and I forgot the combination.
It’s not that I don’t have any ideas that could be books; it’s that the translation from, say, article to full-fledged book feels like a giant cognitive leap. If I feel an article’s suckage beginning to overpower the not-suckage (in the parlance of the journalism world), I can bail after a few hundred words and start again. What if I start writing my book, and about 18 chapters in I realize I’ve been writing nothing but crap? I could certainly start again, but as I’ve written before, there’s nothing I dread more than wasted effort. Therefore I place way too much emphasis on having an Idea. Capitalized. The big idea that demands to be told in book form—the kind of Idea that led to Romeo & Juliet, or Twilight.
I suppose this is all a defense mechanism. I care about writing deeply, therefore I’m my harshest critic. For a thought to make it onto a page, it has to have been run through my personal mental gymnasium, looking at it from all conceivable angles until I’m certain there is absolutely nothing better I could possibly say. (For the behind-the-scenes DVD: While writing this article, I rearranged the order of my Best Ideas Ever about 3,000 times before settling on what you read up there.) Rejecting my own ideas as “not book-worthy enough” or “just the word ‘buttress’ ” is probably my way of avoiding the anxiety I might feel when I realize, inevitably and completely unpredictably, that my book isn’t turning out the way I’d imagined.
There’s a finality to mainstream publishing that doesn’t exist in the independent world. After all, it’s a storied industry devoted to the creation and distribution of books. When I think of indie publishing, I think of a motivated group of people who empower idea-generators to share those ideas with the world—a relatively new phenomenon. When I think of mainstream publishing, I think of a secret cabal of Illuminati who wear long flowing robes made of Kindle Fires who control our thoughts. My ideas have to really impress them, so they’d better be the best ideas ever!
Maybe this whole thing is mental gymnastics. But then again, all writing is. So rather than fret about my lack of ideas for this meeting, I’m just going to force myself not to prepare, trusting that something good—though maybe not the BEST—will come of it, even if all I can think of is, “a projecting support of stone or brick built against a wall.” Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer, that I’m sure can be applied to all things book-related, it’s the value of a deadline.