Sometimes inspiration is so feather-light you don’t really know you’ve had a solid idea unless you catch it. It could come as a passing thought, or a what if that drifts into mind, or the intriguing sound of someone’s voice. Years ago, when I was teaching business writing, I was often asked about the role of brainstorming in writing. Most people seem to understand that brainstorming is a big part of the writing process, and they know it is somehow related to inspiration, they just don’t exactly know how the two connect and how one can stimulate the other.At the time, the focus of my teaching wasn’t on either one. I was trying to show people how to gain a different skill they frequently lacked — that of organizing and giving force to ideas. Writing structure was my favorite topic.
But of course there’s always a place for brainstorming, because before you can organize your thoughts, you have to have one or two of them to work with. So here’s what I wrote, back then, about brainstorming:
Twyla Tharp, the master choreographer, has a wonderful book on creativity called The Creative Habit. One of my favorite pieces of advice in it is her discussion of how to start anything – a dance, a book, or a piece of music. To begin, she says, you don’t have to start at the actual opening of the piece. Dive into a part that interests you, begin brainstorming there, and you can build the piece outward, in any direction. This is a good piece of advice for writers in the earliest part of the process, long before it’s time to structure a piece of writing, when you’re only just developing the idea of what to write about. If a topic interests you, begin brainstorming about what caught your attention. The initial idea should blossom from there – leading outward to other topics, into greater detail or out, into the broader context of your topic. Either direction works.
Say you’re interested in the topic of symbiosis in the rainforest. You read about a certain water lily – bright white – that attracts a very specific beetle. At night, it closes, trapping the beetle and covering it in pollen. In the morning, it frees the beetle to go pollinate other lilies, and changes color – to pink – to avoid attracting the same beetle over again. Interesting topic, right? How could you work from there? You could either choose to move more deeply into the topic – examining the beetle, the flower, and their mutual life cycles, or you could move outward – out into other symbiotic relationships in the rainforest, to the algae that grows on the sloth’s fur to get closer to the sunlight, for example. You could even move out to the rainforest itself and other topics relevant to it. Either way, the initial idea – the lily and the beetle – doesn’t have to be the beginning of the piece you eventually write. If it turns out to be a wonderful hook into the piece – great. But in the end, it may become merely a footnote. It doesn’t matter. The lily and the beetle worked, because they were the spark that started the brainstorming engine.
Brainstorming is obviously a big part of writing fiction, and that’s so because brainstorming is what gives some weight to that initial moment of inspiration. People often ask me now how I start a story, or how I started a particular story. The answer is pretty much back to the lily and the beetle, because work on a piece begins with whatever inspired me, and that’s a different thing each time. Sometimes it’s the voice that gets me. I hear something in my head, and I like the sound of it, and then I find a story to put it in. Sometimes I’m fascinated with an idea, and wonder how it would look in the world if it were to play out. What would a world without gender look like, for example? Or a world where people didn’t age? Or could record their dreams and then step in and live inside them?
So I play that inspired moment out on paper in a brainstorming session or two. That means asking myself question after question about the initial idea, building it into something that has some weight, some reality. When it does, I begin working on the pieces I’ve missed – if I’ve got character, that means plot, and setting. If I’ve got plot, that means character. And those questions keep getting asked at every stage: what kind of place is this, and what kind of culture does it produce? What kind of person is this and where would he or she get the ideas/way of speaking/difficulties he or she has?
When I think of this messy, unpredictable process, all of it flowing out of that initial, fleeting moment of inspiration, I think the lily and beetle metaphor becomes that much more apt. The moment of inspiration comes out of nowhere. But if you open up your hand (or petals) to catch it, a process begins. Coat the thing with pollen, hold it there, until you know it will help you grow. And then, when you do let it go, you’re changed. No more white lily, now it’s pink, and looking for the next thing it will need, to continue to be fertile. Inspiration is nothing without brainstorming to build on that initial, easy-come idea. But of course first you have to catch the beetle.