Sunday, February 05, 2017

How to Grow New Ideas

I got a rejection last week that put me into a minor tailspin. "We liked this story a lot," it basically said, "but it didn't do enough new and different with X-plotline."

I wasn't upset about the individual rejection. It was kind, clear, and encouraging. It was also the 101st rejection I've ever gotten so, by this time, I'm a little less touchy about rejection than I used to be. These days when I get a rejection, there's less obsessing*, more ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and "So it goes" and sending that piece out to a different venue.

What set me back was that it tapped into my deepest neurosis as a writer: that I'm not original.

Don't get me wrong; I have my strengths. I write beautiful setting, because setting is the first thing I notice in the real world. My first-draft prose is pretty clean, often lovely. I come up with funny names, I can structure tight scenes.

This fear isn't about the mechanics of writing. It's that I'm not saying anything new.

This is one of the reasons I haven't pursued writing literary criticism, although it's pretty much a requirement to progress farther in my profession. Forcing myself to write my dissertation was one of the hardest things I've ever done, partly because I don't think I have anything new to say about the writers I study. I haven't written any academic articles since then because the very idea makes me sick to my stomach: not an auspicious sign.

Writing fiction is easier because I enjoy it. It's fun. It's challenging. And the stories I tell are meaningful to me. Toni Morrison said, "If there's a book that you want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." That's what I try to do.

But what if the stories I want to read--and thus want to write--are boring? Derivative? Trite?

(These are the words the ugly voice whispers.)

The thing with a fear like this is that, no matter what anyone says, you still believe it about yourself. I've talked about it with several other writers, all of whom say "I love your stories; you're brilliant; you're beautiful; we'd follow you into Mordor, etc." Y'know, normal encouraging friend stuff. Encouragement like that is kind and necessary--in this vocation, we need all the affirmation we can get, even if it feels like a bit of an echo chamber.

But it doesn't really address the fact that I can see what that rejection is talking about, and I don't know what to do about it. In my worst moments, I look at my work and all I see is lesser reflections of authors I love.

Which brings me to grappling with the central conflict: how do I have better ideas? Is it possible to make your brain better at having ideas? Or is the brain you're given the one you have, and you make do with the ideas it gives you?

My poet friend Molly (whose excellent book The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded comes out in March) gave me at least a partial answer over the weekend: read widely. Watch widely. Experience widely.

Basically, in this model, the brain is what you feed it. If you keep feeding it the same raw material--if you watch the same kind of shows, perhaps, or read in only one genre or style, or only visit the same restaurants and stores--it will continue to churn out the same end product.

Or in a different metaphor, I can learn to grow better ideas by planting different seeds. Maybe watching a documentary instead of rewatching Buffy for the fifth time. Reading poetry, or biography, or science journalism, instead of the umpteenth Johnlock fic. Visiting new countries, new cities, or driving a new route home.

And even, as Molly suggested, trying to see the same places I always go--we both live in a small town, after all; there are only so many places--with new eyes.

*Although I still engage in a bit of rejectomancy just to see if my stats bear out my feeling that I'm getting better as a writer. And hooray--it looks like I am! My pro rejections have lately tilted towards more personal than form, with a few luscious "your submission has been shortlisted" plums to savor. It's the little things that keep us going through 101 rejections ...

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