This might not work for everyone but it certainly worked for me.
I was introduced to James Webb Young’s A Technique for Producing Ideas by short story writer Adam Marek, at a workshop, for Spread the Word in October last year. It’s an advertising manual, but works just as well for writing stories.
The basic process is this…
1) Gather your materials – this is everything of interest to you, in whatever medium, as vast and varied as possible. A life’s work, in fact.
2) Seek a relationship, a combination, a connection between selected materials – try and try and try, until madness beckons.
3) Do something else – mundane or pleasurable. Have a rest from all that thinking. Let your unconscious mind get to work.
4) ‘Out of nowhere the Idea will appear’ – the magic moment we long for occurs, at precisely the moment we get into the bath, are about to fall asleep, can’t find a pen…
5) Working over the Idea – how does hold up to scrutiny? Adapt, evaluate, work and rework until it…works.
The workshop was a fast track leap through these stages. We drew spider graphs linking everything we knew to the theme ‘Halloween’. We were encouraged to chose two separate ideas and start thinking about possible links. We were shown a series of photographs, told to write down any thoughts we had whilst viewing them. Then it was time for a break – in the form of a mathematical puzzle. Doing something else, all right. Then it was time to write, first to instruction (what does it look like, feel like, smell like, keep writing, don’t think) and then to music. Three songs were played, while we wrote freely, non-stop, whatever came to our pens.
I was thinking of witches and spiders. The photograph was this one. I knew her. As sure as I knew myself. Her name was Summer.
(Sally Mann, Candy Cigarette, 1989)
Billy Ray said Summer was a witch. He said that because ever since she was nine, she knew how to blow smoke rings out of her nose. The two sentences I wrote as soon as I saw her.
I wrote a piece for each of the songs played, but Cornflake Girl by Tori Amos showed me Summer dancing.
By the end of the workshop, I had a slight story. I let it rest, sideways looking at, not really thinking about it, writing occasional notes, until I had it.
It seems I’ve been working this way as long as I’ve been writing. When some of my fellow classmates at City went on to do an MA in Creative Writing, I chose Social Anthropology. The study of people, what better choice for a writer, I thought. I have box files filled with newspaper clippings, magazine articles, scribble in numerous notebooks, write draft text messages to myself. I love all artistic outpourings – film, painting, sculpture, music…I love to look for links where I’d seen none before. I know I’m not the only one. (Am I?) I’ve never believed in writer’s block. For me, it’s a necessary stage, time to take a break. I’ve learnt to work these breaks into my writing practice. (And stopped calling them procrastination.)
I plan on using James Webb Young’s technique for a long time to come.
It makes the madness easy.
Summer can be read here.