When I worked at Powell’s Books and hosted readings, the most popular questions that audience members asked the authors were, “Is this novel autobiographical?” and “Where do you get your ideas?” The issue of generating ideas is frustrating and familiar. It’s also bewildering. Asking where ideas come from is a bit like asking where the stars draw their dust. It came from somewhere, but mostly, it was just there.
Of course, that’s only partially true. Writers can backtrack and pinpoint the origin of many essays, poems and stories, the moments where we recognized some shape in the ether as the start of something, a particle to split or terrain to explore. This is the proverbial “aha moment” when something clicks. Yet the whole process remains so mysterious that we often end up speaking in hazy clichés such as “something clicked” and “aha moment,” mapping a piece’s genesis on a vague psycho-geography composed of particles and ether, because the process of discovery is often as ambiguous as our understanding of it.
There is consolation, though. The more you write, the more you learn how to generate ideas. Even if you still depend on happenstance, you develop habits. Whether the places you search are on the streets or in books or the caverns of your mind, you learn to recognize the fertile locations where subjects turn up, in the same way an urban hawk learns where the pigeons roost, and you visit those locations frequently. The writer Barry Lopez summarized this tracking ability when he said something to the effect of (I’m paraphrasing from memory): once you train your eyes to see them, you realize that stories are everywhere. That’s true. But how do you learn to see?
First, we need to adjust our conception of luck. Writers might often luck onto an idea, but the process of repeatedly generating ideas is not driven by advantage and good fortune. Prodigious writers aren’t simply lucky writers. They’re active writers. They search, they think long and hard, and they write their way through dead-ends in order to arrive at promising starts. Lopez’s comment touches on two things: (1) that the world is full of material, so we aren’t in danger of running out, and (2) the ability to find material is not ingrained. It’s a skill you cultivate with patience and practice. For nonfiction writers, luck happens to those who diligently search. It results from exposure: the more area you cover, the more contact you make, so when you’re out there looking for things to write about, the better your chances that you’ll stumble on something either externally or internally. This echoes Emerson’s suggestion to believe not in luck or circumstance, but cause and effect.
Granted, it’s hard to pin down what we mean by ‘ideas.’ When it comes to writing, an idea can refer to the subject of an article, the plot of a novel, a profound phrase in a story, a parallel drawn in an essay, a fictional character’s key trait, and a powerful line in a poem. I’m primarily a nonfiction writer, so I can’t speak for novelists or poets. When I say ‘idea’ here, I mean essay and article subjects and finished pieces’ design, and when it comes to those, I’m the searcher type. I go out looking.
For those of us who don’t work for publications that give us assignments, we’re left to assign ourselves. I find material in different ways. For my more straight ahead articles or topical essays, many ideas spring from life. I go about my day-to-day, eating and working and walking around town, and I take note of what I’m doing. What am I reading? What am I listening to or thinking about? When I find something of interest or recognize that I’m obsessing on something, I look more closely at it as a potential subject. Am I really into Korean snack foods right now? I should probably write about those. Am I listening to a lot of mid-period Coltrane? I should explore his life and music.
Because this process requires self-reflection, it can also lead to more personal narratives. The initial approach is the same: Look at yourself and dissect what you see, dissect your thoughts, emotions, encounters, behavior. Personal essays require we go further than reporting, though, that we gaze beyond our obvious subjects–the food, the music–to deliver larger revelations. It’s not enough to recount what happened. What matters more are the themes that emerge from the patterns of your existence. Are you fixated on death? Love? Aging? Injustice? Keep going. Consider recent life events: have you had any encounters that seem to represent something deeper about our times, our culture, human nature? Or about the shape of your life or character? Would these events be compelling to you as a reader if they were rendered as scenes? Now reach back further in time and think about moments from years past that you find yourself returning to over and over, moments that haunt or amuse or mystify you, things you can’t stop thinking about. Look closer. Write them down, and while you do, learn to listen to yourself and the conversations around you, even if it means eavesdropping at dinner. That’s dialogue. Maybe those exchanges will prove useful when you write a future scene. Maybe they’ll help you arrive at a related idea. The point is to look at your life and see what it reveals. That’s your material.
Even if this sounds suspiciously self-helpy, the results can be profound. By dissecting your own history, fixations and behavior, you can find big ideas. You can see this dynamic in essays by Marcia Aldrich, Steven Church, Elena Passarello, Lee Zacharias, Roxane Gay, Peter Selgin, Ira Sukrungruang, Kim Dana Kupperman, and on and on. I’ve written a number of personal essays this way–one, for instance, about what my childhood Star Wars toys reveal about my relationship with my mother, and about the nature and loss of youth; another about the resurgence of the word ‘rad’ and what it reveals about fashion, American ingenuity and the aging process. Had I not looked at what I was hearing at the coffee shop, what I was buying at the grocery store and thinking about in bed, I would never have found these subjects.
When it comes to personal narratives, obsession deserves special mention. As the writer Steve Almond says:
The longer I read and write, the more I come to view obsession as the essential engine of literature . . . our best art implicates us. It induces us to experience the intensity of feeling that is absent from the rest of our lives. . . . I used to spend hours trying to explain this to my students at Boston College, who were forever confusing emotional evasion with literary restraint. To the stubborn ones, I often issued an order that I received years ago, from an elderly writer who had suffered my own wretched early burps of prose. The only thing that matters is the thing you can’t stop thinking about, he told me. Dress it up how ever you like, son, but tell me the goddamn truth.
For many first-person essayists, that’s exactly the case. Whatever we are compulsively drawn to–be it a thought or a thing–is something we should write about. Whatever is ugliest inside us, what we find unflattering and would rather conceal, is worth exploring. Examples from my own life are unattractive and plentiful: fear, self-loathing, drug abuse, nicotine addiction, escapism, deceit, misguided romance, the terror of seeing myself and my parents age, being a people-loving loner, oral fixations, sentimentality, awareness of death. These sorts of subjects involve obsession, emotion, conflict and disorder, and they can make for stories that reveal as much about the narrator as they do about the reader and human nature. To me, this is the power of personal narrative: going beyond naval-gazing so that readers see themselves in the author in a way that changes the way readers think about themselves and the world. Even though it has its downsides, I’m now grateful for my weaknesses and obsessiveness, because they help me better understand and relate to other people. This quality is called ‘empathy,’ and many literary critics say that literature fosters it. I agree.
Whether or not you’re inclined to explore your life for ideas, it’s essential to explore the world around you. Be it through overheard conversation or the suggestions of friends, people unwittingly provide writers with the seeds of stories–what reporters call “tips.” You just have to recognize them. Like the time a friend tipped me off to a dive bar in downtown Los Angeles. She said the bar was wild and I needed to check it out. So I wrote down what she said and did some online research. A few days later, I visited the bar with my laptop and took tons of notes which became an article. I’m no John Krakauer, but as the author of Into the Wild said, “I keep my antennae up all the time. Whether I read a local newspaper, or talk to the guy selling me a doughnut at a small-town coffee shop, I’m reflexively on alert for a compelling story.”
Along with listening, we need to be seeing, and seeing all the time. Look around. Is there a police car parked with its lights flashing outside a building? Go check it out. Is there a film that’s receiving what seems like unnecessarily harsh press? Weigh in on the discussion. Is your neighbor always making weird noises through your shared apartment wall? Try to figure out why. See activities as material and the everyday as interesting. This is how those “accidents” happen. If you’re out and about and looking, you’ll stumble onto something, like the time I accidently stumbled onto a TV shoot in downtown LA.
I stopped to check out what looked like a camera crew. There were tents on the opposite side of the street, and police had blocked traffic. As I leaned against a fire hydrant, a crew member asked if I was an extra, and I said, yes, yes, I was. I ended up staying on set for hours. There was also the time that, the same day, I ended up at the scene of a jewelry store robbery and shooting. I spotted police and TV crews at a taped-off intersection, so I nosed around, wrote everything down and asked people questions. I even wedged myself into a press circle led by an LAPD Lieutenant. I later wrote the incident as a portrait of the everyday violence in America. It’s not high art but it is something, and it shows that, as essential as it is to stay seated at your computer, focused and typing, that isn’t enough. You have also put your feet on the ground. Go places. Be curious. You have to live.
In addition to exploring, one sure fire method for finding ideas is to read. It sounds so obvious but it can’t be stressed enough. If you’re searching for material, read widely and frequently. Read about current and historical events. Read about other countries, about music, books, food, culture, people’s lives and ideas and traditions in anthologies, narratives and biographies. You’ll inherit their enthusiasms, and you’ll likely find a subject that invites further exploration. In The New New Journalism, writer Susan Orlean said that that was her method.
I try to read fairly specialized publications for people with specific interests: dog magazines, hunting magazines, etc. There is nothing affected or twee or darling about them. This is the real world, and these magazines are the way the real world communicates to itself within these very specialized worlds. For me, reading these magazines is like hearing the slang of a subculture that is really used. It’s thrilling. Reading magazines like these is one of the best ways to jog my mind.
I’ve discovered many subjects this way. Finding a passing mention of something unfamiliar in a profile, an aside in a biography that suggests a larger story, or a bit of information that presents a window into a person’s character when viewed in a larger context–nonfiction writer Ron Rosenbaum calls these “tip of the iceberg” fragments. I think of themas unturned stones. So much of music and literary history seems to have already been written, the mines exhausted, yet there are still pieces of unmined material out there, narrative riches whose significance other writers have overlooked because they’ve walked right past–or, in some cases, right over–them. When you stumble across these unturned stones while doing something else, you discover an entire world underneath them. In my case, there was the story of lost German jazz pianist Jutta Hipp.
Signed to the venerable Blue Note record label in the 1950s, Hipp quit playing music during her prime and then disappeared for forty years. I knew about her. I owned a few of her albums, but it was only when I read a passing mention of a particular event–where a record executive tracked her down in Queens, New York and hand-delivered a $37,000 royalty check–that I realized that if I could write that moment cinematically, we might better understand her and her enigmatic life. When I did more research, I discovered that not only had no one written much about that particular dramatic moment, but no one had yet written the narrative of her life. All accounts of Hipp were expository or brief, little overviews in books or simplifications built around her disappearance. Her disappearance wasn’t a secret. She had a small cult following among jazz fans. Yet somehow, despite the army of music writers and biographers out there, no one had given her story a narrative treatment, so I did. This method is less ethereal than the look-at-your-own-life approach, and its accessibility might provide the most comforting, comprehensible answer to the question of where ideas come from.
Besides finding stories that no one has written, essayists can turn familiar material into something new by assaying it. Unlike a biography of a famous figure, where a biographer will do deeper or different research than previous biographers, or take a new angle, the essayist can put their unique stamp on a familiar subject, examine, frame and meditate on it in a way that only they can. From an essayist’s perspective, everything is new under the sun, because there are as many perspectives on a topic as there are people on the planet. I did this in one essay for Brick magazine about Miles Davis’ song “Sid’s Ahead.”
While recording this tune in 1958, Davis said something offensive to his pianist Red Garland, and Garland stormed out of the studio, leaving Davis to play piano in his absence. When I thought about the incident, I realized that it and the song revealed a lot about Miles’ personality and approach as a band leader. Meaning, I realized that this song, which I’d listened to countless times, provided a window into something bigger than itself. I did the same with jazz organist Jimmy Smith.
Smith recorded prodigiously for Blue Note Records in the 1950s and ’60s, yet the label kept scores of his recordings locked in the company vault, unreleased, for decades. What did this reveal? Less about Smith’s music and more about the allure of the unknown, and the legend of company vaults—at least in my mind. I wrote an essay about it for The Threepenny Review. The ostensible subjects of both pieces are clear: the songs, the musicians’ lives, lost music and vaults. The larger question the essayist confronts is: what does it all mean? The way you answer that question, the connections you make, and the route your mind travels, are what make an essay compelling and uniquely your own. It probably sounds narcissistic to keep citing my own writing as examples, but they’re the only pieces whose origins I can describe with certainty. Even though I can tell you what someone else’s piece is about and what its themes are, I can’t explain how the author came up with the idea. I can, however, cite other writers’ methods in a general way.
Many straight forward news stories contain material to expand on. Some suggest a larger unreported backstory that is far more absorbing than the standard “just the facts” account. Others are the type of stories that would be richer, more revealing and readable if rendered with scenes, character and dialogue instead of exposition. Calvin Trillin worked this way.
When he was writing his U.S. Journal series for The New Yorker between 1967 and 1982, Trillin had to turn in a new story every three weeks. He dealt with the challenge by developing a system. He bought regional papers at Manhattan’s Times Square newsstand and combed them for stories. Papers from the Midwest, Texas, New England, California–-“Ninety percent of them were totally useless to me,” he said, “because they ran the same AP stories.” He also subscribed to alt-weeklies like the Chicago Reader and Seattle Weekly, and between the daily and weekly formats, he found stories that had more story to tell. He looked for ones with “a narrative line.” He was drawn to ones where “one element in society [was] rubbing up against another, whether the difference is class or race or something else.” Others he was drawn to “out of pure curiosity” or because they raised compelling questions, like the story that became “U.S. Journal: Knoxville, Tennessee—It’s Just Too Late.” In it, a high school girl dies in a car crash while her strict father is chasing her. “[She] brought the family car home past curfew on a school night,” Trillin said, “and then, without even coming inside, got right into another car with some friends and left again. Her father was a strict man—a junior high school principal. When he saw this, he jumped into his own car and chased the car she was in. Her car crashed, and she was killed. I found that I couldn’t get that story out of my mind. What must he feel like? Who was this girl? Who were her friends? I wanted to know a lot more about it.” For sixteen years he repeated this process and turned similar news stories into narratives, enough to fill two books.
Reading The New New Journalism, you see the range of approaches narrative nonfiction writers have.
Gay Talese: “My writing is scene-driven, so I look for promising scenes. When I wrote The Bridge, I tried to visualize the Varrazano Bridge and the men who are dangling in the sky, as a picture. The opening scene of The Kingdom and the Power is of a managing editor in an office. The opening scene of Honor Thy Father is a doorman watching, but not really seeing, a disturbance on the street.”
The Hot Zone author Richard Preston: “I troll through magazines and newspapers, but it would be an exaggeration to say that I have a method. I develop a lot of stories that don’t go anywhere. It is an intense winnowing process during which I probably pursue five stories for every one I actually write.”
Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser’s story ideas are frequently generated by a news item. “Once I settle on an idea for a piece,” he said, “I go to the library. I have a vague sense of the story and start reading broadly on the subject.” In the case of Fast Food Nation, a Rolling Stone editor gave Schlosser the assignment. “To be honest,” Schlosser said, “I wasn’t that interested in fast food when Will [the editor] brought it up. I was reluctant to accept the assignment. So I went to the library and started reading. What I quickly learned was pretty amazing.”
Then there are the fiction writers who find their subjects in similar ways. As Geoff Dyer says of the origin of his novel, The Missing of the Somme:
. . . I was living in Paris, failing to write a novel that would in some ways be a version Tender Is the Night. In the footsteps of Fitzgerald’s hero, Dick Diver, I took a train to Albert to visit the cemeteries of the Western Front. I went on a whim, but when I got there it felt almost as if I had been summoned to a rendezvous. Standing in front of Sir Edwin Lutyens’s memorial to the Missing of the Somme, I knew I would write a book about the Great War. I spent the next several years doing just that.
Everything I’ve described so far might fall under the “business of generating ideas” rubric. The word ‘generating’ suggests something mechanical, a process aimed at yielding a product, in this case by siphoning everything into one thing, and refining nothing into something spectacular. It also implies that the process is repeatable, but even if the process is semi-systematic, its formality doesn’t come at the expense of creativity. From steaming milk for lattes to planting rice, we rely on systems to deliver repeatable results. No matter how effective, no method can routinely deliver ideas, though. Good ideas are erratic, animated by puzzling organs who abide by fickle metabolic schedules. Even though I have a system that works fairly well, I can’t expect it to work every time I need it. Sometimes I find new ideas, sometimes I don’t. It isn’t a stretch to say most times I don’t.
I write until I finish my piece, then I’m left at the place where we all begin: the proverbial blank page and its eternal question: “Now what?” To go from a state of absolute consumption–productive and engaged and typing for hours–to this, this empty-headed standstill is frustrating, often infuriating. I sit at my computer, going through desktop folders and lists of essay and article ideas in search of something to pursue. Rarely do any of these ideas “click.” Nah, not interesting, I tell myself. No, isn’t grabbing me, and on and on and on. Days pass without a project emerging, often weeks. Writer Ted Conover keeps files of potential story ideas, too. “I look through them when I’m starting to think about my next project,” he said. “I recently came across a drawer I hadn’t seen for years. It was filled with dead ends, with ideas that never went anywhere.” Like him, I keep at it, continue searching. There’s nothing else you can do.
I call this period between pieces “the in-between.” What that name lacks in inventiveness, it makes up for in accuracy. In-between, I feel lost, unsettled. I’m not just in-between projects. I’m unmoored in general, drifting between the poles that give my life shape and meaning: the act of writing, and the preoccupation of whatever I’m working on. Between essays, I get a bit pensive, withdrawn. If I seem distant, it’s because my mind is milling and I’m scouting for clues. I can also get cranky. I want to write. It aggravates me to have the time and the drive but no subject. But that’s too bad for me, because you can’t rush this stuff. You either have something to say or you don’t. An essay is a way to work through something, to make sense of a question or topic, and if nothing is preoccupying you in a way that compels rumination, then you have nothing to assay about-–or even comment on out loud–-and you fall silent. Assaying without necessity is just noise, or worse, hot air, the sound of someone in love with their own voice. In his Los Angeles Review of Books essay “The Pump You Pump the Water From,” essayist and critic Sven Birkerts said, “On the days when nothing will kindle, there is no use pretending, I just know. When I was younger, I might have stayed in my chair, tried anyway, but now I know better. Forcing myself to use words when I’m in this state guarantees not only self-reproach, but a larger questioning of the uses of anything. Far better on such a day to do busy work or read.”
This silence isn’t “writer’s block.” I don’t believe in the concept. Not because I’m always able to write–I’m not–-but because the idea of a block suggests that instead of having some control over the circumstances of our writing lives, we are at the mercy of external forces. In its most woo-woo use, “writer’s block” promotes the impractical and cosmic idea that something is blocking the transmission of magical creativity particles from entering our brains and delivering our “inspiration,” that unknowable, unruly, romantic life force. Instead of a block, I call it a gap, a temporary break inan otherwise active life, because I believe that if you keep typing and thinking and reading, you will come up with a new idea. But that’s later. First, you have to weather the no-idea-phase.
During our more cynical moments, we might characterize this situation as the “well running dry,” because the metaphor touches on writers’ ultimate fear: the fear that we have depleted whatever reservoir nourished us. When we don’t understand where good ideas come from, how can we ever feel confident that we’ll have one again? If this fear isn’t universal, it’s at least widespread: That this essay was my last, that idea was a fluke, that novel was the best I’ll ever write, there are no more stories to discover, it’s all been done, and my best work is behind me. All of which are wrong, of course—or mostly.
Yes, we will eventually grow too old to write. Our diminishing abilities will inevitably fail to reach the heights of years past, which will place our best work behind us. (Unless you’re Cormac McCarthy, whose work seems consistently incredible, no matter the year of its creation.) But during our prime, our drying well is only a seasonal ebbing, and it won’t be the result of our running out of ideas. What the no-idea interval reveals is the topography of creativity: That gaps are natural phases in the writing cycle. The writing life is an endless sequence of write/regenerate, write/regenerate, a little bit of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day –-wait, this again?–-although colored more by heaven than hell. No matter how many incredible pieces we finish, none will ever free us from this loop. And thank goodness. Who wants to only write one interesting thing? Exploring the world at large, and the universe in one subject, is half the satisfaction of writing, and the practice insures that we’ll always get to do it again and again. This is the silver lining in the search for new ideas: perpetual creation.
Despite the frustration of feeling unmoored, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there was a lot to like about the in-between. It’s not only stimulating but crucial, because when I’m searching for new material, I’m not just searching, I’m thinking, and to an essayist, thinking is as central as linking words in sentences. Thought is what you build an essay from: This is related to that. This leads to those. These parallel each other. Rather than connective tissue, these connections are the muscle and bones of an essay, what holds it together and makes it move, and when a new connection is forged, a new essay is sometimes born. I may be pensive while searching, but I’m also deeply alive. It’s invigorating to examine, to analyze and stumble, and see what you find. Like revising, the in-between is a time where your mind gets to wander, and in the process of meandering, you draw clear lines.
To give in too much to the frustration of generating ideas is to ignore one of the fundamental aspects of nonfiction writing: that it isn’t only about the stories we finish, or our oeuvre, or where such and such is published. It’s about the act of creation itself. The joy is the satisfaction of the struggle of making. Whenever a magazine publishes something I wrote, a particular person I know from adolescence often tells me, “You’re getting there! Keep going!” Although flattered, I want to say, “Getting where? I’m here now. This is the point: to be making things.” Since her intentions are pure, I thank her and leave it at that, but her perspective is revealing. She means that with each measurable achievement, I’ve moved closer to grasping the golden rings that we Americans equate with success: money, visibility, renown. But this is writing. No sane person expects money or renown from essay writing. Besides our culture’s misguided value system, the point that she’s missing is that writing for many of us isn’t destination-oriented. It’s process-oriented. Although that phrase sounds psychoanalytical, it only means that, if you’re writing, you’ve made it. The act itself is our success, because doing it is the point—at least for me. I do it because I like to do it, and I hope the fruit of my efforts moves others in some way. I try to remind myself of this when I’m mired in the frustrating search for new ideas.
Of course, searching is writing. When we pause to refresh, we’ve already resumed our work, because even though it looks different than typing, thinking about what to write is parcel to composition. What the in-between also shows us is that writing isn’t just what you do at your computer or with words. It’s what you do before and during and away from the computer. It’s reading, thinking, walking, spacing out. It’s staring out your window, cursing yourself for what feels like wasted time, when you’re really metabolizing information and giving shape to the shapeless. As Flannery O’Connor said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” And Joan Didion after her: “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” In his LARB essay, Birkerts said that it was in those “spells of sputter and balk,” “those paranoid summonings of the void” where, seated at his desk, “mired in a thought-trance in front of his illuminated screen,” that he may “have a truer insight into what writing is.” All of which is to say, you can’t write essays or narrative nonfiction without lying in your own evaporated lakebed. Just like you can’t walk around every minute of the day feeling the dark weight of your own impending death, even our most brilliant thinkers can’t have something to say all of the time. Silence is part of the process, and it yields more material.
Of course, some writers have more to say than others. There are what are known as one-book authors, and once they tell their story, they are essentially done for good. And that’s okay. One-book writers aren’t a victim of a polluted creative aquifer so much as people with a distinct set of motivations. They speak until they feel satisfied, or before what they say weakens what they’ve already said. Sometimes it’s best to quit while you’re ahead. Phillip Roth did this. As he told a French magazine in 2012:
When I turned seventy-four, I realized that I didn’t have much time left, so I decided to reread the novels that I loved when I was twenty or thirty, because that’s what you never reread. Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Conrad, Hemingway . . . and when I finished, I decided to reread all my books, starting at the end, Nemesis. I read until I got tired of them, just before Portnoy’s Complaint, which is a flawed book. I wanted to see whether I’d been wasting my time by writing. And I decided that I’d actually done all right. At the end of his life the boxer Joe Louis said, “I did the best I could with what I had.” That’s exactly what I’d say about my work. I did the best I could with what I had. . . . And after that, I decided that I was done with fiction. I don’t want to read any more of it, write any more of it, I don’t even want to talk about it anymore. I’ve given my life to the novel. I’ve studied it, I’ve taught it, I’ve written it, and I’ve read it. To the exclusion of practically everything else. It’s enough! I don’t feel that fanaticism about writing that I felt all my life. The idea of trying to write one more time is impossible to me!
Many of us haven’t yet reached this point. Some of us never will. For us it’s not “That’s enough,” it’s “What next?”
When all of my techniques fail, or I get too frustrated to sit any more, I walk. Like W.G. Sebald in The Rings of Saturn, and the narrator of Teju Cole’s novel Open City, I go outside and wander. Whatever I think or encounter on the trail or sidewalk is grist for the mill. Move your feet and you turn your mind. Ambulation fosters rumination, and you can generate some deep thinking this way, or at least, some promising leads. Just keep a notebook handy.
In addition to walking, I also go to Powell’s Books. Having access to a bookstore this big and varied is like farming on land with a high water table, but you don’t have to live in Oregon to do this. Just go to your local bookstore. If you don’t have one, visit the library. Most stacks are an effective catalyst.
At Powell’s, I go to my favorite sections and subsections, and I browse aimlessly: Literature. Essay anthologies. Literary magazines. Travel Writing. Americana, New York. Americana, California. Journalists (alphabetized by name) and Journalism. By browsing titles, I might find leads, and I might make connections: X is related to Y; Z is something I should learn more about. Sometimes I sit on a stepstool in the aisle and read, and I find a lead in a book. Other times I visit just to let the atmosphere energize me.
Surrounding myself with towering walls of books calms me when I’m frustrated. I’m tempted to say it’s also “inspiring,” but the connotation is too quaint. The effect is deeper. As a bibliophile, being among books realigns my priorities by reminding me that this is why many of us do what we do: to connect to readers, to speak and be heard. It also motivates me to keep searching: Don’t give up, the books seem to say. Find a new idea. Think hard. No, harder. The bookish atmosphere teases the fetishist in me who loves paper and magazines and words like “periodical.” Between the crinkly pages and the musty smell, the experience is so sensory that, if Powell’s were a steak, it would have me salivating. Instead, the store is more a ringing bell. The interior hums a certain frequency, and the vibration stirs my insides. I usually walk out of there with a few books in hand and a few pages of notes: ideas about essay topics, individual lines to transcribe once I get back to my computer and can type as fast as I think.
Sometimes it feels like each time you finish a story, you have to learn how to write one all over again. The elation of completion gives way to the fact that you’re back to figuring out not just what to write, but how to write it, the shape of things. New Yorker writer John McPhee discussed this in his 2013 piece, “Structure.”
In some twenty months [writing for the magazine], I had submitted half a dozen pieces, short and long, and the editor, William Shawn, had bought them all. You would think that by then I would have developed some confidence in writing a new story, but I hadn’t, and never would. To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me. It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you. Square 1 does not become Square 2, just Square 1 squared and cubed.
Although he was speaking in general, the piece discusses his struggle writing the article that became his book The Pine Barrens. After eight months of research, he couldn’t figure out how to start. “I had read all the books I was going to read,” McPhee said, “and scientific papers, and a doctoral dissertation. I had assembled enough material to fill a silo, and now I had no idea what to do with it.”
Because I’m obsessive and have a sentimental tendency that, when I feel like framing my eccentricities as a “documentary impulse” rather than neuroses, I keep a journal. I record dates, thoughts, conversations and events, and in these details I can look back and trace the genesis of many finished pieces. Recent highlights from my journal provide a catalog of creation:
I had an essay idea in the shower at 8am and jumped out soaking wet to type it.
I had another idea upon waking in my girlfriend’s bed, and I scribbled it down on a scrap of paper.
I thought up the premise to a music essay involving Miles Davis while soaking in a bath at 7:30pm.
The introductory lines for another music essay, about Hank Mobley, came to me at 12:40am as I lay down to sleep, so I sat back up and jotted the lines down on a yellow sticky note, in the dark.
Once, while housesitting for a friend, I found a vintage mass market copy of Fat City, one of my favorite novels, on her bookshelf, and the raving blurbs on its covers made me realize I should finally write an essay about this book.
The first lines of a recent essay came to me around 12:30am while reading Tom Bissell’s book The Magic Hour. I was sitting on a couch reading, housesitting for another friend while she was out of town. Something about one of Bissell’s sentences made me think of something else, and then a line came to mind fully formed: “At age twenty-four, I sold my vintage Star Wars toys to buy a thousand dollar mountain bike that I barely rode for the next ten years.” That’s the same first sentence in the essay’s published version. I barely changed a word. Sometimes that’s all there is to it: a tenuous connection, a passing hmmm. When this idea arrived, I wrote it down on the only thing at hand: a subscription card that had fallen out of my issue of The Economist. And poof, an essay was born. Or was it?
These examples don’t answer the original question about where ideas come from. Isolating the moment of conception, we see where an idea started, but we don’t demystify the alchemy of creation or reconstruct the wick the led a lit mind from A to B to Y to Z. As they say in sociology, correlation isn’t causation. Maybe the essence of idea-making is the same as that of the human brain: the fact that no matter how much we learn about it, there is always more that we’ll never know. The gray matter that fills our skulls, and the messages it emits, often remain as foreign to us as other planets. That evasive majesty, that opacity, are part of what make human beings so eternally and infuriatingly compelling, in the same way that that leap from A to B to Y to Z is what makes a good essay: watching a particular mind maneuver in ways that ours never would. That movement on the page, and the way it embodies a singular personality, is also what compels me to write essays myself, powering through the frustrating beginnings and countless revisions in order to arrive at a satisfying finish, only to do it all over, again and again and again, for the years that compose a lifetime. And it’s these exact things that we will never understand: Where did the author come up with that idea? How did she think to go from here to there? If you can’t answer those questions, you can never rely on generating new ideas yourself, which is exactly the position you want to be in, since the freedom to explore unmapped terrain is precisely what writing is.
AARON GILBREATH has written essays for The New York Times, Paris Review, Kenyon Review, The Believer, Brick, and The Threepenny Review, and articles for Oxford American, Virginia Quarterly Review and Flavorwire. His book This Is: Essays on Jazz comes out in fall, and Future Tense Books published his chapbook A Secondary Landscape in 2013. He’s working on a book about crowding and lives here.