Beginning and starting are not the same thing. A book begins when I have an idea, an interesting answer to “What if . . .?” A book starts when I’ve nurtured the idea into something resembling a seed. Between beginning and starting, that period of seed creation, is a wonderful secret time because I don’t share what I’m doing with anyone else. It’s the one part of the process that is completely mine.
It took me a long time to realize how fragile a new idea was. I assumed my idea would wait on me indefinitely. If I had finals, or work was a mess, or family stuff was happening, I’d tuck my idea away, thinking I could come back to it weeks or months later.
Seeds might have the capacity to lie dormant but ideas are more like soap bubbles. I guarantee you that a tucked-away idea will be dead by the time you get back to it. In addition to valleys (the time between projects), mountains (deadlines), and safe landings (decompressing after you’ve met a deadline), which I blogged about last October, the time begin beginning and starting is, for any creative person including a writer, a fourth sacred time/space.
Birds build nests for their eggs. Farmers cultivate land before they sow seeds. Writers, too, have to prepare a place for an idea turn into a seed.
Nesting boxes are a big deal here in Alberta. Farmers and ranchers are encouraged to put them on fence posts to provide a place for song birds to raise new families. Once I realized that ideas need a safe place, I built myself some nesting boxes.
Forget file boxes, business folders, and three ring binders. They are for later, when the seed has graduated to a Work In Progress. Unlike birds, who go to great lengths to hide their nests, I want mine to be highly visible. I want it to catch my eye when I walk in my office every morning. I want it to remind me that something wonderful is happening.
So one of the things I do between the last book and the next is to build a nesting box and an idea journal to go in the nest. Since I often don’t know what the next book will be about yet, I don’t have to worry about matching the paper, fabric, collages, found objects, or words to a theme. I can be wildly creative.
The first thing to go into the box is a small notebook, usually a few pages hand-folded and sewn together will be enough to get me started.
The box and notebook are important, but the most important thing to give a new idea is dedicated time. So I try to set aside a quiet half hour every day for at least two weeks. I have no plans, no goals. I'm just going to play with whatever idea comes to mind.
Where do I want to set the story? When? Time of year? Rural or urban setting? Do I have any unused characters that I might bring forward? Is any dialog running through my head? What helps most is the randomness of what flits through my mind. At this point everything is a possibility. I jot down everything in the notebook, discard nothing.
Things start finding me: an old photograph, a magazine ad, a discarded bobble I pick up on a walk, a joke someone tells me. If I think one of those odd bits might be relative to the story, even if I have no idea how, it goes into the nesting box.
At the end of two weeks I try to decide if the idea is a seed yet. If not, I give it two more weeks. Eventually, when the idea seems to have reached seed stage, I put the lid on the box, tuck it in a safe corner of my office and go away for a while. A lot in life needs time to brew, rise, develop, gel, sprout, coalesce, whatever word you want to use for that period of time when the best thing—the only useful thing—I can do is go away and leave the process alone. When I get an irresistible urge to lift the box lid and “see if it’s done, yet,” I know it’s time to actually begin writing.
Summer is a good time to build your nesting box. Okay, so you don’t have to build one, you can buy one. What are you waiting for? You want to be ready when the next great idea comes along, don’t you.
Quote for the week:
You just have to keep on doing what you do. It's the lesson I get from my husband; he just says, Keep going. Start by starting.
~Meryl Streep, actress and philanthropist