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Capture Those Ideas Before They Float Away

By Sue Lick

Ideas are like soap bubbles. They can pop or float away so easily. Then they're gone forever.

Buy a 50-cent bottle of Mr. Bubbles, fill the plastic wand with suds and blow. Bubbles big and small run out into the air. Some fall to the ground, some fly for a moment, then burst, some land on your shirt or a tree limb and break, leaving a wet spot that quickly fades. But a few big bubbles catch the wind and ride higher and higher, up past houses, past the trees, and disappear into the sky, going on forever. Those are the bubbles that make it worthwhile, but when we dip our wands into the soapy liquid, we don't know if we will get a little bubble that sputters and breaks or a grand bubble that lives forever.

So it is with ideas. We can find them everywhere, they cost nothing, and most last only an instant, but you never know when that grand idea will emerge from the suds, so you need to capture every one long enough to set it free and see if it flies.

Ideas are the raw materials from which we write. Without ideas, we sit speechless at our desks, wondering why we thought we wanted to be writers. A popular sitcom saying these days is, "I got nothing." If the writer doesn't collect the ideas that come her way, that's what she has: nothing.

Ideas can be coaxed out of the air. If you are very quiet and very welcoming, you may be able to sneak up on the beginnings of a story, a poem, an essay or an article. Writing prompts and exercises can help summon ideas. You know how they work: Pick a random word out of the dictionary and write about it for 15 minutes. Or, finish this sentence: "When she opened the door . . . " or, "What's the most important lesson your mother taught you?" And so on. These can lead to wonderful things, but it's like having to hook your battery up to a charger to start the engine. How much better if we come to our desks armed with a pile of ideas ready to be written?

Where do we find ideas? Absolutely everywhere. You can gather them like kindling, quickly amassing more ideas than you need to set your words on fire. You can find them in your work, your hobbies, the people you meet, or just driving down the street. Story ideas can come from the newspaper, the church bulletin, your club newsletter, a casual conversation with a friend, or a bumper sticker on the car in front of you on the freeway. All you have to do is open your mind to the possibilities, and you become an idea magnet.

Look around the room where you are sitting right now. I'll gaze at my office for a minute. Computer: I have sold several articles on computer problems. New equipment, virus protection, radiation coming from the monitor, carpal tunnel syndrome, or the software genius who invented the "Dogz" screen saver all could lead to publishable articles. You could write about high-speed Internet. What is it? Should you get it? Is it available in your area? Telephones raise other ideas: how to beat the high rates, the value of caller ID, answering machines vs. voicemail, how to get rid of telephone salespeople.

Turn something in your office into fiction. A woman reads her e-mail and suddenly screams, "Oh my God!" What is in that message? Good news or bad? How will it change her life?

As I write, I'm drinking herbal tea (Red Zinger), which raises a whole other area of article possibilities: tea, coffee, lattés, the local coffee shop and everything in it, caffeine addiction. How about a short story which takes place over afternoon tea, or at a Japanese tea ceremony, or at Starbucks? Tea and coffee evoke different cultures, different atmospheres. Can you write a poem that begins with the first sip? “As the dark brew burns my tongue . . .”

Look out the window. I have double-paned glass, required because of our cold weather and the need to conserve energy. That's a whole other kettle of stories. It's cold and damp here on the Oregon coast, so we could write articles about ice, rain, snow, allergies to mold and mildew, wood stoves, studded tires, rust-proofing the car, storm-watching, or chimney sweeps. We could take a fictional character into the midst of a drenching rainstorm. How does it feel? How does she react? What if he's standing on the beach on a rare sunny day watching a boat head toward the shore?

Visit the mall, the airport, or a church-- anyplace where people gather-- and look around. What might that couple be saying to each other? Where is that boy with the backpack and the guitar going and why does he look so worried? What might be happening with that man the security guards are inspecting with the x-ray wand? Add imagination to the information coming from your senses, and the ideas will never stop.

If something in your life is bothering you so much that you find it hard to think of anything else, write about that. If it's important to you, other people will be interested, too.

One idea leads to another, like bubbles coming out together. Beginning writers worry about running out of ideas, but if you open up your mind to the possibilities, then that will never happen. The trick is to catch them before they disappear.

Never trust your memory. All too often what seems like a marvelous idea at midnight is gone in the morning. Keep writing supplies by the bed, in the car, in your purse or pocket, and wherever else you spend a lot of time. I get ideas in the shower, in the kitchen doing dishes, driving my car, walking the dog, even watching television.

Something about moving away from the desk and paying attention to other things causes ideas to come sneaking out. Write them down. If you are in a situation where you can't write, such as driving the car, tell your ideas to a tape recorder. Telephone them into your own voicemail. Do whatever you have to do to hold onto an idea until you have time to sit down at your desk with it and see where it goes. Even if most ideas turn out to be like the little bubbles that break as soon as they hit the air, don't let them go. You never know which bit of nonsense will turn out to be the bubble that floats all the way to heaven.


Sue Fagalde Lick has published three books and countless articles, along with short stories, essays and poems. She lives with her husband Fred and dog Sadie in Newport, Oregon. Read about her books and classes at http://www.suelick.com.



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