I have a problem. I am constantly coming up with good ideas for writing projects, but they never come to much. It’s been a constant problem in my writing life, ever since I was 14 and jotting down idea after idea for novels that would never get written. Some would get a few chapters along, but they invariably died a death at some point.
I’ve read the advice. I know what to do. Show up, show up, keep writing, push on. And I know, from experience, that it works. I know the first draft will be rubbish, but that there will be something in there, some kernel of goodness that is worth the hours of tortuous writing that will eventually allow that kernel to flourish. Good first drafts aren’t my problem. I’ve written plenty of blog posts or short essays that started out as terrible first drafts.
But I don’t want to spend my entire writing life producing blog posts and short essays (not that I don’t think these things have value). I don’t want to just run the 5k, I want to do the marathon. I want to write a book. I want to do it for its own sake, for the feeling of accomplishment. I want to see if I can.
Good ideas, like I said, aren’t the problem. I seem to have plenty of them. But, as we know, the world is full of people with good ideas – it’s the doing it that counts. The ideas come from wherever it is ideas come from, I get very enthusiastic and for a short burst of time I can think of nothing else. Then another idea comes and I get distracted. I think, no, this new idea is the idea, that other idea was no way near as good as this one.
I also seem to hit a bit of stumbling block when it comes to research. As a nonfiction writer, research is important. Of course, its possible to blend the lines and some of the best writing does – part fact, part fiction. I might write about something I have some experience of, but to really explore a topic I’m not already an expert on (and I’m not sure there is anything I can claim to be an expert on, beyond my own experience of the world – and even that is questionable) I need to research it.
My research process usually starts with me writing a list of every book or website or magazine article I can think of off the top of my head that seems relevant. Then I search Google and add to the list. Maybe I’ll also ask around on social media to see if anyone has any suggestions for reading material. Once I have a good list, I start reading and making notes, jotting down quotes and any thoughts that come to mind. When I’ve finished reading one of the books on my list I’ll look at the bibliography and add more reading material to the list.
At some point the list seems to take on a life of its own. Adding to the list no longer feels like making progress. Instead, the list starts to feel like some kind of origami beast. I’m folding and folding and it’s growing, but I no longer have control over what I’m creating. I also start to worry, what if I’ve made a wrong fold or missed a fold? I begin to question whether the list is any good. Some of the books or articles on the list seem so obscure that they can’t possibly be relevant. I worry about the gaps too, the books that should be on the list but are missing. I worry to myself, how embarrassing would it be if I actually published this book and then some acclaimed critic points out the massive gap in my research; the One Important Book that I absolutely should not have missed and that refutes everything I’ve written or, gasp, has already said everything I’ve written hundreds of years ago.
And they say writers are insecure people?
I recently had an idea for a new project. I won’t give away too much detail, because it still feels too young and delicate to put it out there in the world. But it is about wilderness and rewilding. As soon as I had the idea it captured my imagination until I could barely think about anything else. The process I described above, with the list and the origami beast, was set in motion, but the thought remained at the back of my mind: will this project simply go the way of all my other project ideas? So I stopped. I put the list to one side and I decided to consult the internet. Dear internet, how exactly does one research a nonfiction book?
One idea I came across in a couple of places and that seemed to offer a solution to my problem, is that of immersing oneself in the project in order to make surprising connections. In an article in Brain Pickings about the book Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind, Maria Popova picks up on a section of the book about Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. Rubin writes:
You’re much more likely to spot surprising relationships and to see fresh connections among ideas, if your mind is constantly humming with issues related to your work. When I’m deep in a project, everything I experience seems to relate to it in a way that’s absolutely exhilarating. The entire world becomes more interesting… Creativity arises from a constant churn of ideas, and one of the easiest ways to encourage that fertile froth is to keep your mind engaged with your project.
I came across a similar idea in an article on the excellent Creative Nonfiction website, ‘The Essayist in Search of the Essay‘. In the article the writer asks four nonfiction writers about their research process. The four answers are surprisingly different, but writer B.J. Hollers replies:
…try not to search in the obvious places. I mean, you should search there, too, but then you should expand your search to look in places where no one else ever looks… when you’re researching you must live your research. Take the blinders off and see how the radio report on NPR dovetails with a headline in the paper. See how a university lecture syncs with the traveling art exhibit. Often, I’ve found, the world just throws you favors when you consider everything a clue.
Keeping my mind focused on a project ideas is definitely something I struggle with. After reading about the same topic for a few weeks, I tend to want a break, so I’ll read something a bit lighter on an unrelated topic. But what Rubin and Hollers say about keeping your mind open made me think differently about these so-called “breaks”. I’ve been approaching them as something negative, a guilty treat that I have to admonish myself for. But as long as I keep my mind focused on the project, it doesn’t matter if I’m researching wilderness and I decide I feel like reading a book about typeface. If anything, Rubin’s and Holler’s approaches seem to encourage these digressions as a way of making new and surprising connections.
As I said, I also worry about reading irrelevant material. But there is no such thing as irrelevant material. Of course, as Hollers says, you have to look in the obvious places. I’m not going to write a book about wilderness and rewilding without reading anything directly related to the topic. But perhaps I need to let myself off the hook and relax a little when it comes to my list. Perhaps I’ll make too many folds here or too few there, but in the end the origami beast will be unique – and it will be uniquely mine.