One of the big-picture items of the writer’s life is sitting down to decide what to write about each day. But even larger than that in terms of what you hope to accomplish with your career is the “why” of it all. I’ve covered a few important topics on the writing process last year; this year my plan is to first take a deep dive into the issues motivating a writer and then continue on with how to get that novel sitting in the deep recesses of your brain into a reality.
So, why write?
Unfortunately this is going to be another one of those topics in which the only real, right answer will come from your own heart. If you’ve decided to sit down at a word-processing device and pour your heart out, you’d better be damn sure this is what you’re meant to be doing. But how does one figure that out? Where do all the ideas come from, and why won’t people stop asking where your ideas come from? I wish there was a simple answer to all of this, because if so I would’ve milked it for all it was worth and made a lot of money doing this. Truth is, just like motivation, whatever forces you to want to create must come from inside. Nothing I can do or write will ultimately help you in this regard. That being said, I can at least try to provide some guidance for your soul as you head down this journey.
The big “why” of it all should be some kind of trigger from your life. An easy exercise to figure this out is to understand what is driving you. I can offer up an example from my first novel here. Our Senior Year was a story I had been carrying around with me since my own senior year of high school. I saw somebody like myself as the main character, and thought of a composite of some of my friends that could exist as other characters. It would be my attempt at telling a basic “boy meets girl” story that takes place in countless high schools across the nation, only in this case my shallow mindset at the time forced me to *spoiler* have the main character commit suicide once he realizes the relationship can never be. Looking back on this time (as it became a more major theme of the actual novel), I can see that I was trying to tell a story to deal with how I was feeling in those days, and felt that this would be the only way I could get it onto paper. As the story progressed I realized there wasn’t a whole lot of other plot there, so I subsequently came up with some other ideas, such as the *spoilers* car accident and the college visit. But ultimately this story was borne of the necessity of what I needed to tell.
Now try visualizing a story like this from your own life. What story is inside you that you are burning to tell? What can’t be fully realized until you get it into that kind of form? If there isn’t anything there yet, dig deeper. There are many reasons to write, and this is just one way to access those feelings. But how you deal with those feelings is the key: this is a story that has to be told, and you are the only person who can get it right. Is there a relationship in your life that isn’t going well? How are things going with your parents? Do you enjoy the place where you live, your current status in life? All of these things are worth pondering if you’re trying to get to the core of what it is to feel that writer’s drive. Again, these are just partial motivators, but they are one way to get started. The “why” of writing is that a story is burning deep within you that must be let out - are you able to calm your mind enough to ponder and think it through? I had to learn how to do that so don’t think it’s going to be an easy or short process. But when it comes down to it, this is a solid way to get ideas, which contrary to popular belief don’t just appear out of the ether (ok, sometimes they do).
The larger point I’m trying to make here is the “why” of writing can be anything you want it to be. On another side of things, say, the journalistic side, perhaps there is something going on in your neighborhood that really gets you animated and makes you want to effect some change. Find out who the key players are, interview them, and find other relevant government documents or other supporting elements that will bolster your overall picture of the situation, and then find a way to get it to the masses. The main element of this is whatever drives you: the story, the article, the situation, the people. Same can be said for stuff that’s going on in your own life. I can use an example from my second novel for this one.
Last Man on Campus was another slow burner that existed in the back of my brain since my college days (it used to take me decades to finally put these ideas into story form - I’ll write more about my own problems and limitations in this space soon). I knew it was going to be a scary story about some kind of conspiracy running the show at a college campus very much like the one I was attending. That thought alone was enough to drive me to figure out the plot aspects of the book and eventually forced me to expand it into *spoiler* a larger universe that will spill over into at least one more novel. But at the center of it all was that core story about a guy trapped on his campus by forces beyond his understanding, which in turn was inspired by my own creeping meanderings around my dormitory hall and considering its story value.
It can be as easy as simply looking around yourself and coming up with a story that maybe has always existed there, but it took your writer’s eye to see it. I’m not sure that this advice would work well for somebody trying to craft a more out-there genre type book; only you can know what a space lazer should look like if you’re writing a Sci-Fi novel, for example. But on the whole this can be a great way to access those feelings and to start putting together a story.
So far this all seems pretty basic, right? “Look at your surroundings, dig deep within yourself to come up with the story, find something you’re passionate about.” But as simple as all of this sounds, it will take a long time to hone them into a career. I’ve got two published books under my belt and yet I am still struggling from idea to idea when it comes to my next work. Thankfully, since I keep my mind and eyes open to the possibilities around me it has become much easier to attune myself to the ideas when they arrive. It also helps to get the new ideas down into writing as soon as you can: either with a notebook or online using Google Docs like I do. The important thing is that you realize and understand the useful parts of the ideas: those things that will propel the story in unexpected directions that you may not have thought of at the time, but will someday realize that’s where it was headed all along.
The most important part of all of this is being able to access that within yourself. Part 2 of this essay will attempt to look at that aspect.
John Abraham is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.