Bad Advice Wednesday: Have an Idea

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


Juno just last week, in restoration at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Ideas are abstract by nature. Unbidden, ideas (like memories) arrive in our brains in pieces: a bit of evidence, a blast of emotion, a sentence of logic, a shot of paranoia, a visceral reaction to film on the news, a vision clear as wind and descended as if from heaven. The pieces float around, coalescing in various and partial shapes, wrapped and then rewrapped in layers of preconceptions, blankets of family custom (or pathology), clear sheets of wisdom, sturdy pockets of knowledge. The problem is getting what seems whole and vital in our brains onto the page whole and vital. Seldom as we sit with pencil in hand will the idea come at once (though many experienced writers are skilled at doing earliest drafts in their heads). Most often, an idea will reveal itself fully—move from amorphous blob to elegant artifact—only in the writing. Honest first drafts often look like the mind as described above: aswirl with conflicting notions, half-baked insight, generous impulse, hackneyed platitude, opinionated surety, brilliant strings of words, silence.

How often have you had a heated argument with someone about a subject the two of you gradually came to realize you substantially agreed upon? Or left a pleasant conversation and understood only slowly that you have nodded your head to erroneous thinking and said things you didn’t believe? In conversation, as in drafting, ideas take shape sentence by sentence, retraction by retraction, statement by revised statement.

To convey an idea, you must have an idea. Where do ideas come from? How to get from the whorled mists of the mind to the straight lines of the page? How to develop belief into the background for a rich and convincing essay? How to build the vignettes of memoir into evidence that supports an idea?  Thinking is good.  Writing is even better.  Writing, in fact, is a form of thinking, and it can be where ideas take shape.  A great summer exercise is automatic writing.

Automatic writing was a tool of Gertrude Stein’s and other modernist writers and has been used by everyone from clairvoyants to psychoanalysts, philosophers to statesmen, from Jack Kerouac to Kristen Keckler. It’s a simple way to disconnect the overweening editor in our heads, to let what’s in our heads hit the paper or computer keyboard raw so that we can see what’s in our heads. All you do is pick a prescribed time limit (start with one minute, work up to ten or more), get your notebook in hand, and say, “Go.” And then go. Write. Don’t stop, don’t think, don’t worry, don’t edit; just go-go-go, till the time limit is up.


If you get stalled, just write anything, any nonsense, but do not stop writing.

The goal is simply to see what comes out. Often, the issue at hand will be defined: you’re about to start a new job, you’re in the throes of grief, you’re pregnant, you’re in love, you’re not sure how to explain why you’re voting for the person you’re voting for. So that’s what appears. But how you feel about the issue at hand turns up, too, often in surprising ways. And, so frequently as not to be coincidental, a new way of saying and seeing arrives. Sometimes a key turns up for that locked door you’ve been yearning to open.  Later, take that key, name it, make that name the title at the top of a page, and go again.  Repeat as necessary.  This one is best done daily over time, perhaps when you first wake in the morning, perhaps at cocktail hour, definitely in your notebook at the beach, and has the distinct excellence of not needing to be good.

[adapted from Writing Life Stories]

  1. Rachael writes:

    Great advice! I haven’t done what I call “speed writing” for years. The tactic was helpful as I was drafting my memoir. Now that’s done and I want to start writing short essays, but I often feel hampered by my lack of ideas. Back to speed writing it is!

    • Bill writes:

      Speed writing! That works. I’m full of stories, not always ideas. Some parts of the game we’ve got to work at!

  2. Paula writes:

    Honestly reassuring, about the “honest first drafts”!

  3. Julie writes:

    Thanks, again, for simple but profound insight. I had an idea while driving to the Cape this morning, semi-froze in trying to make it brilliant, instead bought some scratch-offs (won $4), and will now write for some expectationless minutes. Now that I’ve won the lottery, who cares what I write!