There’s a myth out there—perpetuated by images of lightbulbs popping overhead and final pages being set upon tidy piles beside typewriters—that books arrive fully formed, like babies delivered already cute and bundled by the stork. Oh, sure, it may not come all at once; but if you do have to find it, it will be like uncovering something from the ground, or finding your way through a labyrinth to the center—everything already there, the map already written for you to follow, just waiting to be discovered.
But excepting those rare gods of story who walk among us, this is a myth. Stories are not found, they are made. Every single part of a story is a choice—every name, every place, every plot twist. I will admit there can be a bit of mysticism as to where the options come from sometimes, when they appear suddenly in your mind, but you still choose to use them or not.
For me, story is a process of trial and error. It’s like a Rubik’s cube that I pick up, turn around, twist here and shift there, trying again and again to inch towards the right picture. Every new twist opens up a new version of the cube, a new side of the puzzle, which may either lead to the solution or may only open up ideas for more twists. Along the way, I am shaping a story.
But I realized the other day that this slow, painstaking process can produce an unintended result—I tend to get a bit sentimental about my ideas along the way. Sometimes an idea isn’t working but pieces of it are so great that I don’t want to let it go. And, more heartbreaking, sometimes an idea looks wonderful and perfect… but I don’t want to write it, simply because it’s not me.
Unwritten ideas can look beautiful, like pieces of art to place upon the mental shelf. But I find myself filling my mental galleries with more and more cold and lifeless art, and bringing nothing out to show to the world. Instead, even if it kills me, I have to throw the art onto the ground and let it shatter—and use whatever shards I can to build something new, something that has a chance of becoming real.
For someone with a pack rat mentality (like me), it’s far too easy to argue that the idea needs to stay there, pristine and preserved, waiting for its time. That even if I do manage to recycle parts of it into something real, I will always mourn the perfect “perhaps.” And there’s really no way to know for sure that a certain idea in this particular form will never work…
Yet I find days and weeks and months slipping away from me, and no work to show for it. I’ve examined the idea from every side, I’ve imagined its success, I’ve admired every piece of its beauty—but for whatever reason, I’m not taking it out of the mental gallery. So I have to break it, mine the pieces for the few fragments of gold, and start again.
The simplest way to argue against the pack rat is to remind yourself that even if only a tiny sliver of your original (beautiful) idea remains, it was still worth it. That creative energy helped lead you to where you are now, so it was not a waste, even if everything has changed.
And remember that, ultimately, it’s about what you write, not what you think. If you just love to think about things and keep them to yourself, that’s fine—but if you don’t want to take your thoughts with you into the void, if you want even the slightest chance of your flawed but beautiful mind being seen by the world—you have to bring those thoughts out of the mental gallery and into reality, one painstaking choice at a time.
And sometimes, the first choice in creation is destruction.