When I first heard of The Writer’s Arena Competition, I thought to myself (all young, dumb, and full of… well, you know), “Huh. I could do that.” They told me there would be tight deadlines. Pfft… I have yet to come across a deadline I haven’t kicked square in the teeth. They told me you had to base your story on a single, probably-not-very-forgiving prompt. Easy-squeezey, lemon-peezie. Giant robots, death rays, cannibals, beloved children’s characters: I’ve got ideas for all of ’em.
And then came the day where I received my prompt: dessert. Positive that I must have misread it at first, I was sure the prompt was actually “desert,” and immediately I was taken with visions of Francis X. Gordon or Paul Muad’Dib or a dozen other desert-themed characters I have loved throughout the years. But alas, my first read of the prompt was the correct one: it was “dessert,” as in of the cake and ice cream variety.
Now, aside from the fact that I don’t have much of a sweet tooth anyway (I know, I know), I don’t usually look at a sugar-cookie and think, “Well, clearly therein lies a tale worth telling.” A panic soon threatened to overtake me…just how the hell was I going to get out of this one? With only ten days to write the story, I decided to start writing with no real idea of where I was going or what I was even going to write about. And as I sat there typing away at a story so terrible you’d have to be out of your fool-mind to think I’d even begin to tell you what it was about, the most remarkable thing happened: I had an idea. I have no clue whether or not it was a good idea, but it tickled me so that I just couldn’t help but giggle to myself (this happens often, and in very public and conspicuous places, as you’d imagine). Less than 24 hours later, and, boom: I had a short story. You see, I had forgotten to remember possibly the most basic and fundamental rule of the writer (if such a thing as writing really has “rules”).
I had forgotten to trust the process.
You’ve seen Apocalypse Now, right? Of course you have. And surely you remember that opening shot, where a jungle landscape slowly fades into view as The Doors slide in on the soundtrack, the landscape exploding as Jim Morrison’s vocals warble into the frame and the camera pans to the right to follow the destruction. It’s an evocative, unforgettable opening that perfectly sets the mood for the journey that is to come. A shot so carefully timed and choreographed it had to have been planned as the opening all along… right? Wrong…
When assembling the first cut of his film, Francis Ford Coppola realized he had no idea how to open the picture. In a fit of desperation, he turned to a bin of unused footage and found a sliver of B-roll from the napalm explosion that took place during the “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence. Something about the footage struck Coppola, and after some tweaking and experimentation, he had an opening for his film. Some might look at this and see a divine twist of fate–a cosmic coincidence that provided Coppola with the perfect opening salvo for his classic film. But the truth is that the footage Coppola found didn’t really matter all that much, because it wasn’t the finding of said footage that made the opening great. It was Coppola digging in and getting his hands dirty in the process.
Because at the end of the day, the idea isn’t what’s important. Ideas are helpful and provide a great place to start, but they aren’t the be-all, end-all cure that some seem to think they are. At the end of the day, it’s the work that makes your story/film/piece of macaroni art shine. It’s just as John Barth once said: “The process is the content.”
So if you ever get stuck in your writing, if you ever think you’re completely and totally out of those precious “idea” things, then just push aside all of your inhibitions and write. Doesn’t matter what it is. Doesn’t really matter if it makes any sense. Just start writing the words down as they come to you.
Learn to trust the process, and you might be surprised at just what comes pouring out of that old noggin of yours.