Woof! The watchdog surveys her territory, ears pricked for the slightest sound, senses on alert. She doesn’t miss a thing. She rests and waits, oblivious to the past, completely in the moment. Soon enough there will be something to bark about: a bird, another dog, a human touch, the gravelly plink of kibble pouring into her metal dish.
Each experience is new, every day is different; “mundane” is not in her vocabulary.
I can relate. It is this canine state of watchful repose that brings ideas to the tuned-in writer. And so the oft-asked question “where do you get your ideas?” strikes me as silly. I don’t “get” ideas. They come to me freely, so many ideas that it would take many lifetimes to flesh out the themes and trace all the threads from beginning to end.
There are more than a million stories in the Naked City. There are more than enough stories for you and me. We will never run out of ideas. Though we may write on the same theme, the finished product will be unique.
Oh, I used to worry. I guarded my ideas, hiding them from thieves ready to snatch my timeless prose.
In my mind is a fond picture of a young stay-at-home mom and burgeoning writer with few publishing credits, toddlers trailing me to the mailbox as I pull out the latest issue of Satellite TV Week.
My husband owned a satellite dish business; we were regular subscribers with an eight-foot stainless steel Kaultronics orb mounted in our front yard scooping in a thousand unscrambled channels.
I considered the magazine cover story, titled Video Vigor, a drawing of lithe, leotard-clad lasses in the ubiquitous legwarmers and sweatbands of the 1980’s era, little Olivia Newton Johns arching and stretching beneath the lettering.
“They stole my idea!” I was sick to my stomach. Months earlier I’d spent hours at the cherry-red Olivetti manual typewriter detailing the fitness shows beamed from the Clarke Belt in the southwest sky. Rough drafts consumed a bottle of Whiteout and a ream of paper. I’d mailed a perfectly typed, meticulously researched article. How dare they?
Back in the kitchen, son and daughter clamoring for their afternoon snack, I flipped to the Table of Contents, self-righteous fury blazing as I sought a name for the heinous plagiarist who stole my story.
And saw my name. My beautiful byline. We danced in the kitchen, sloshing Kool-Aid toasts. “Mommy wrote a story for a magazine!”
We celebrated again when the $150 check arrived. Figuring out how to get paid was a lesson in and of itself; this particular publication required an invoice, but did not volunteer that information. I had to call and ask. It was not the last time I had to fetch-and-beg for payment.
A dog may bury a bone and unearth it later; this too, correlates to the writing life. For a time I fell into the bad habit of withholding ideas, squirreling them away for the wrong reasons. Like unused designer perfume, elegantly sculpted guest soaps and clothes hanging in the closet with the tags still on them, I had a list of stories that I was saving for an undetermined special occasion, perhaps a venue that paid more, or was glossier and more prestigious.
Many things do not get better with time. The dog knows that she can’t leave the bone too long. It loses flavor. It degrades. Or some scavenger will carry it off.
I still fill file folders with the detritus of germinating ideas: newspaper clippings; marina and restaurant brochures; magazine articles with notes scribbled in the margins; torn envelopes with random jottings; a rainbow of cryptic sticky notes: “Find Luke.” “My name is Jason, but everybody calls me Josh.” “Look up Willards.” A Dear Abby column headline “Wife leaves unexpectedly; needs a break,” sparked the theme of my current novel in progress, Loop Dee Doo.
A periodic sifting keeps everything simmering, current assignments to projects on the back burner. I use what I can, as soon as I can. The selfish, self-limiting holding back did not serve me, or my readers.
As Annie Dillard notes in her book The Writing Life, “A work in progress quickly becomes feral … you must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, ‘Simba!’’
Every dog has its day. Every idea has its day, too. And that day is sooner, rather than later.