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What To Do While Your Ideas Are Simmering

Huge pot of pasta sauce cooking for Christmas EveEarlier this month, I was discussing my own creative process with another writer. We talked a bit about where ideas come from, and the difficulty, at times, of getting those ideas onto the page. For the rest of the day, I thought about how much of my own writing works, and I'm sure it's true for many other writers-- I allow an idea to make its way back and forth, to and fro, in my mind, until it finally (hopefully) makes its way to tangible prose. The trick is: don't let it stick there for too long, and don't use that as an excuse to avoid work on that project.

Excuse Editor Tip: It's fine to let an idea simmer, as long as you are preparing the rest of the meal.

The Simmer

I read the newspaper everyday, not just to be informed, but to find ideas. Sometimes, I will go directly from the crinkle of the news to the flat freshness of my own journal page, inspired to write about something I'd just read. Often, the idea stays right there. But because I've written it down, it takes up a little corner of my brain and waits, in case it's ever needed.

I've kept journals or diaries since I was 9 years old. Who knows what idea may suddenly feel ready to be tasted? It could have been simmering all along, being stirred by the events and changes in my life and the development of my storytelling techniques.

I was just struck by a memory of crying all over the pages of my pink, soft cover diary the day my parakeet, Bluebird, died. Three decades later, I know that childhood pets die all of the time, although it doesn't make it any easier (even as adults). But the significance of that little bird becomes clear as I think about the events surrounding him. I'll always remember Bluebird was a gift from my uncle Johnny, a man who a few years after presenting the parakeet to me, became a "missing person", and years later, he is also an "unsolved case".

At 10, I couldn't have written about all of the heartache involved in the years of "not knowing" my family went through (and really continues to go through) when we lost Johnny. But now, as a memoir writer, I'm drawn to tell the story. Because I was so young when Johnny first turned up missing, my memories are given an extra dimension of mystery--as a kid, putting your head around an adult "getting lost" is difficult. As an adult, and as a writer, I have the tools and the vocabulary to convey that time in my life. (These stories are still simmering, I'll let you know when they are ready for the tasting spoon.)

Use Your Noodle
The mind is a wonderful place to let things simmer, but if that is all you are doing, you will not be able to put together your whole literary meal. While your ideas are simmering, get to work on what's needed to complement them once they are "done". What's a great sauce without some noodles?

  • Set your sights on learning how to structure a novel, if that's the sauce on your back burner.
  • Get to know what creates conflict, and visit the back of your mind and put your potential characters in difficult situations. Write a scene or two, just to get a feel for the process.
  • If you are considering writing a memoir, but the memories still feel to raw to write down, consider fictionalizing some events, just to get you writing.
  • Are you drawn to write about bees, coffee cups, frisbee golf, or some other common everyday thing but haven't a clue WHAT you want to say about them? Do some research online, in a library or with a champion frisbee gold player to discover something unique to focus on.
  • Edit any of these pieces into short vignettes and share them with your writers group, to get a feel for how others respond to your idea. Is the subject matter intriguing to them? Do they feel your idea is ready for the next level?
  • Write a short story focusing on one or two aspects of your idea. Or consider writing a feature article or essay that deals with the subject in some way. You may even submit these pieces somewhere and get them published (generating a possible audience for future work on the subject). 

You need the intertwining noodles so whatever is simmering has a place to land. Your research, your practice, the feedback you receive--those "noodles"-- will all come together with the idea that's been simmering (and getting a little extra spice and stirring now and then). And then it's time to set the table.

Or in this case, your writing desk.

Bon Appetit! Enjoy eating up your "new" project!

Where do you keep the back burner ideas? How much attention do you give them, especially when you are working on other things? When is it enough to set aside a current project for a simmering one?

On a personal note, the story about my uncle seems like it wants to get told more these days than my novel--something I have thousands of more words committed to. Because of this, I am interested in hearing other writer's opinions about when to step aside for the visiting muse.

A Few Good Resources: 



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