I know I’m the kind of writer who has to trick himself into writing, into making the effort to find something to write about.
Many writers have to search, inching their way through story drafts and novels because the answers aren’t coming despite their original ideas, which may have felt fully formed. But in this essay, I’m thinking of the time before we’re stuck in the middle, the time before we even sit down. If you don’t have ideas, what makes you sit down to write? Of course, you can wait. You don’t have to force it. It might be better to wait, to read and feel the world a bit. I did that a lot in 2021. I’m not saying you should be producing at all times, but life isn’t endless. There’s only so much time to do this thing I want to do.
I always want everything to come naturally, without effort, but it’s not possible. It’s like loving someone for a long time, over years and years. We all want this to be easy, but it takes effort and conscious work. I know I’m the kind of writer who has to trick himself into writing, into making the effort to find something to write about.
Even typing that out made me cringe. Finding something. I shouldn’t have to find things to write about. They should fall into my lap.
We always hear that there are stories everywhere, and it’s true, though I resist it because I like to be grouchy. When I’m feeling more generous with myself and more optimistic, I read fairy tales, which inevitably makes me want to write a story like the fairy tale I just read. This is an idea that I stole from writer and editor Kate Bernheimer, who mentioned in a talk that when she doesn’t know what to write, she reads a fairy tale. So I do this now too. Usually what comes out in my writing bears no resemblance to the original tale, but that’s not the point. The fairy tale made me write. I think this is because fairy tales appear to be simple. They give the impression that you can also sit down and write a quick and sharp tale, or, at least, they encourage you to try. You might begin with a boy and girl standing in the woods, and so much can happen in the woods. What can happen in the woods? A tree falls on someone, or a bird talks, or something better. Better will arrive later.
When I don’t have anything at hand, I tell myself to make something happen. I can’t always do it. Make what happen? Not all events are created equal. Making something happen that will work and be good is quite difficult. But if I can get out of my own way and accept that making something happen doesn’t mean writing in stone, but rather pressing another thumbprint in mud, I can move forward. Allow an event to happen that is not the thing you wish it to be and then live with it for a time. We who do not have ideas must settle until we discover the pale, new organism living in the cave.
I’ve known writers who come up with a title and then write a story from that title—I’ve heard that Ray Bradbury did this. I like this a lot and have done it myself, though many times I end up with a title on a page with nothing after it. I’m imagining a couple now, “Asters” (my favorite flower) or “The Lever” (because I like the word and it makes me think of an action). Actually, “The Lever” would make a good story. Actually, I’m going to try that one. Don’t steal it. I don’t have an idea for a story called “The Lever,” but the title makes me want to write a story called “The Lever,” so maybe I’ll put the effort in and find one.
A film by Robert Altman and a painting by Denis Sarazhin inspired the extremely messy, directionless beginning of what I hope will be another novel. They didn’t give me an idea, per se—they just made me want to write a story as interesting.
Read a fairy tale, take your favorite movie, brainstorm a new title, and begin to write using images or a concept from it—or try out a configuration of characters. Organize them in a familiar way. Somehow, as you write, they will begin to change, to resist the structures of their origin. Don’t worry and don’t retell. This is easier said than done, to allow the work to break out of the house of the fairy tale or myth or movie. I get stuck. I run out of steam. So what now?
Read a fairy tale, take your favorite movie, brainstorm a new title, and begin to write.
What can you do but decide to start with nothing and feel the unsteady panic of being nowhere with no tools and no ground under your feet? When I’m in a good place, I feel lucky to work this way. I think it’s an exciting way to write. It can also lead to “first thoughts,” familiar story beats and images, paths to come back to and reevaluate. Or it can lead to the strange, the surreal, the absurd. Surprising yourself is the reward for the difficulty. The first thought, the cliché (not a clichéd phrase usually, but a type of story or character), is always the first to arrive, of course, because our brains are filled with them. When I was writing my novel, I assumed that the story, the moments I labored over, would always exist in the novel. I didn’t have it all planned out, and so when I brought my characters to a big moment in their story, the excitement I felt told me I’d hit on the right thing. However, few of those moments still appear in the finished novel. With time, I saw that those choices I’d made were only the beginning, only the first steps in discovering the larger narrative, hours of labor that helped me to get closer to the indescribable feeling I had about my book.
At a reading at the University at Albany about seven years ago, I asked George Saunders if he always knew what was going to happen when he worked on a story, and he said he “hoped not to know.” He liked to wait for what he called “the animals” to jump out of the dark to surprise him. I wrote that down. There’s something “real life” about working this way, in an open-ended fashion, a formless forward momentum. It’s almost as difficult as living during a time of total uncertainty.
Now and then I’ll get lucky; I’ll win the idea lottery. This usually happens when I’m reading, but it can also happen when I’m writing. I’ve learned to appreciate these rare gifts.
The stories are always there, inside or outside. No matter how quiet your life is, no matter what you feel you can’t access. This is me talking to myself, reminding myself that stories exist inside of me too. Maybe every other aspect of life obscures them, makes them hard to reach. The truth is, I do have ideas. The issue is how I think about them, what I expect from them. I want an idea to give me the key to writing a story, to be a perfect solution, which will solve the problem of writing, which is that we don’t know what we’re doing or where we’re going. (I don’t know what I’m doing and I want to know.) This might be a good place to say that ideas are not stories. Even if you are one of those lucky idea people, you already know that translating that idea to the page is a struggle, and anyway, everything’s going to change.
The issue is expecting ideas and inspiration to be a thing, to arrive on time when we need it. Some of us wake up with a world suddenly turning inside us, or a plot tacked out on the pages in our mind that we have to sit down and outline. Some of us must search and dig, in a way that might even feel like we are faking it. Write “THE LEVER” at the top of the page and start with anything—a name, any person will do. Frank or Susan or Jim or Carlos or Biff. None of those will be good enough. But they’ll be a start, and the rest of their environment will grow out of them like fungus sprouting up around the roots of a tree.
Richard Mirabella is a writer and civil servant living in Upstate New York. His stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, wigleaf, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. His debut novel, Brother & Sister Enter the Forest, will be published by Catapult in 2023.