Any owner of cats will know of what I speak. Cats come at dawn to sit on your bed. They may not nip your nose or inhale your breath or make a sound. They simply sit there and stare at you until you open one eyelid and spy them there about to drop dead for need of feeding. So it is with ideas. They come silently in the hour of trying to wake up and remember my name. The notions and fancies sit on the edge of my wits, whisper in my ears and then, if I don’t rouse, give more than cats give: a good knock in the head, which gets me out and down to my typewriter before the ideas flee or die or both. In any event, I make the ideas come to me. I do not go to them. I provoke their patience by pretending disregard. This infuriates the latent creature until it is almost raving to be born and once born, nourished.
Listen, can we talk? I think I’m in trouble.
Okay, I’ll just pull the couch over here and stretch out. Forgive me Freud, for I have neurosis. (A chocolate to the first young man telling me where that quote is from.)
So… ideas. How do they come at you?
I once met a writer – ONE in my entire career – who, sitting at a panel with me, told the crowd she would write more, if only she could have ideas. I think she was lying to make herself more interesting. Had to be. What kind of misbegotten word-slinger has a paucity of IDEAS? Most of us can’t get rid of the stuff. We produce three novel ideas while cooking breakfast, four series assail us while brushing our teeth. We shed short story ideas like my cat Havelock (a bioengineered organism designed to turn tuna into fur) sheds balls of fluff. They gather ignored in the corners of the room, collect under the bed and generally make a mess of our mental plumbing.
In a way it’s a lot like when we first decided we wanted a cat. We didn’t know anyone who had cats or kittens, and this was way pre-craigslist, and the time machine was broken – makes note time machine/craigslist/kitten story – so I spend weeks moping about wailing about not finding kittens.
Then the same weekend a friend called to say her daughter, in a college dorm, had a highly secret cat who had dropped a litter of kittens… who wouldn’t remain secret much longer. I agreed to take the orange twins (Pixel and Randy) ALL while my husband drove an hour away to visit family friends … who were getting ready to take a found-kitten to a dumpster to “fend for himself”. That fender-for became Petronius the Arbiter about two seconds after he met Dan and wrapped him around his scruffy black paw.
And then, despite our best efforts to limit our household to “two cats only” tm, we’ve never had fewer than four. I refuse to admit how many we had at one time – though to be honest three of them weren’t ours.
It is as though having lit the sign that says “Cats accepted here” we became a beacon for these multi-universe-hopping fuzzies to converge on.
Over the years, as we got better at feeding-on-the-porch but not letting them in the cats have become more creative and shown up on our doorstep (or friends’) orphaned, three weeks old and sick. Or showing up at a mini-golf course, undernourished, covered in grease and with a broken tail.
My ideas are much like that. It’s as though once I threw on the light going “writing stiff working here” the ideas converged from everywhere in the multiverse going “whoop, whoop, whoop, cranium space on isle four.”
In self defense, I’ve learned to treat them like we treat stray cats. You don’t run out to meet them on the street. You don’t invite them in. You don’t lay a trail of crumbs to your door. Instead, you sit a bit aloof, you feed them – sometimes – but you don’t let them fully in, and you watch if they can find another head to
fester er… develop in.
You learn to avoid spaces where stray
cats ideas hide. You don’t approach the feral ones who attach to your mind with sharp claws and don’t let go till you write them. Of course sometimes one of those – A Few Good Men – lurks where I least expect it – I was in the bathroom. READING A ROMANCE FOR FONZI’S SAKE – and has its grubby claws in me before I see it. Then I have to let it ride to the end, pushing everything I was supposed to be doing aside.
And then, if the ideas are “your sort” and have hung around long enough, and have grown and shown they can live with you and you with them, you let them and write them. THAT is how it’s supposed to work.
You don’t go looking for them. You most certainly don’t ask your friends for ideas. You learn to avoid the conversations that are trending in a certain way. (The phrases to watch for are “what if” and “wouldn’t it be neat” and also “Hey, I just thought.” Words are also dangerous. Words like “Imagine” and “think” and “time” and “space”. After a while, when talking to other writers “The” “a” and “and” are not trustworthy either.) – My friend Kate cautions you to never say “there’s a story in that” because there is, and it will happen to you.
My ideas and I have reached an uneasy truce. Several uneasy truces – a series of carefully negotiated detentes eventually ending in surrender for either writer or story. They understand I have only one set of fingers, and can only write one novel at a time. (The whispers in the night that I should learn to type with my toes don’t really help.) And they allow me a little peace if I write them down. Which is why I have scraps of paper everywhere with scrawls like “the guy with the glass eye and the woman with the bionic arm.” – note: story about writer who dies and whose unwritten stories haunt his house, the characters battling it out for existence while trying to attract someone who will write them.– Sometimes, I think the more feral stories make me write them in my sleep. At least I have no explanation for the entire (MEDIEVAL ROMANCE) novel in my hard drive that is undeniably mine but which I don’t remember writing.
The typical writer has loving thoughts about the cartoon character Calvin and his machine for turning earthworms into replica Calvins. If only… oh, if only. (Note – short story about writer who enslaves alternate universe selves to write for him.)
And sometimes you manage to give the idea to a friend and walk away whistling. I know, btw, that the author who said she didn’t have enough ideas was lying, because when I offered to mail her my excess ones, she looked horrified.
But as I said, I’ve worked out an arrangement with my ideas, where I sometimes – rarely, I grant you – have time to you know… sleep. Oh, and go to the bathroom. That last one is important, since graphomania doesn’t seem to doctors a good reason to insert a catheter.
Until this morning.
Okay, so I understand having four writers in a house is the same thing as having two cats… in the universe. Something happens, where one of them is fine, but two or more… warp reality and things start happening that are really weird. (Like, why is there Havelock fur inside the SEALED PLASTIC BAG for the t-shirts I just brought home from the store weird.) One of the weird things is that ideas get discussed – and that’s fine. Once an idea is halfway to being adopted and you’ve picked out a name, you might as well discuss it. It’s the equivalent of buying another litter box.
BUT the ideas have broken detente. They’re not playing fair. This morning, as I huddled over my tea, trying to revive enough brain cells to write this blog, my older son came downstairs and said, That idea you wanted to write, you know, the sf YA series, based on the nursery rhyme… Mind if I borrow a part of it?”
And when I said “I don’t have any YA series based on a nursery rhyme.” He described it. And he gave me the rhyme: Vintery Mintery Cutery Corn:”Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn, Apple seed and apple thorn;Wire, briar, limber lock,Three geese in a flock.One flew east, And one flew west,
And one flew over,The cuckoo’s nest.”
I’m not going to describe the idea for the series, because I know y’all and you’ll demand I write it all tomorrow. Let’s just say it’s that rhyme meets Childhood’s End meets Darkship Thieves. And when Robert told me the idea, I knew two things with absolute certainty: I’d never had this idea before. And it was mine. It was mine like my arm is mine or my eye is mine. Undeniable.
Oh, a third thing – it was there, all six books and ready to be written. SOBS. How could it come in through my SON’S head? What have I done to deserve this? They’ve broken detente. They’re on the path to assured Sarah destruction.
Forgive me Freud, for I have neurosis. And ideas. And now I’m going to run to the office and try to catch up on the backlog of ideas before they find more creative ways to ambush me. What’s next? Coded messages on the street lights? Dirt patterns on the ceiling?
If they’re so smart, why don’t they write themselves?