When it comes to life advice, I don’t really know what I’m talking about. Not enough to give anyone else advice, that’s for sure. But I have taken a shine to getting inspired. Goodness, I love being inspired by others’ stories, their accomplishments, and their ability to overcome obstacles.
See, I’m a 31 year old, creative writing major, and senior here at Boise State. It took me a bit longer than I would have liked to find my path. As such, you’ll find me seeking inspiration on every corner of the web—podcasts, movies, TedTalks, books, YouTube videos, I mean, wherever I can find it. So, I’m just here to relay some things that really, really smart people have said that struck a chord with me. And hopefully you can be inspired too.
This week I’ve been reading this book, The Idea: The Seven Elements of a Viable Story for Screen, Stage, or Fiction because I’m a fiction writer. The book explores just that—how to come up with a killer idea so that you can write the story you always envisioned.
And that got me thinking about stories, what makes a good one, and how to come up with that perfect idea. Now, creative writing can be a lot like life. You’re in your own story right now, right? Well, how did you come up with the idea to start on the path you’re on currently?
I mean for me, it wasn’t until I was 28 that I had a real conversation with myself and said, “Hey, you like writing, right? Well, maybe you should take some steps to make that your full-time job.” And from that idea, I decided to quit my job, enroll in classes at Boise State as soon as possible (which happened to be that summer), and pursue my lifelong dream of being a writer.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be such a big idea, like the meaning of life, choosing your career, or even picking your major. Maybe you already have those things figured out or maybe you’re still in the development process of that section of your story. This frame of mind can apply to let’s say, a new hobby you want to pick up, a club you want to join, a part-time job you’re thinking about applying for—all of these things had to start with an idea, but perhaps you’re too afraid to take the dive.
So, how do you come up with an awesome idea? How do you know that this is the right idea for you? Or how do you know that this is the right time? According to the book, you have to go back to the drawing board more often than not. The book says that we’re pretty used to picking an idea and just going with it, even if it doesn’t work out. We’re loyal to the thought of simply choosing something and sticking with it, because that shows dedication. Then, we get upset when we receive criticism on our results. Man, I can relate.
For example, I knew that I wanted to be an artist of some sort back when I graduated high school. So, at first, I enrolled in some classes and thought I might try my hand at painting. Spoiler alert—it was super duper hard. I lost steam with it pretty quickly. When my family kindly told me that might not be as profitable of a job as I eventually wanted, I thought about what might make a good career. So, I declared myself as a graphic design major. Turns out, I’m not particularly passionate about that either. So, I ended up dropping out.
I got frustrated that I wouldn’t be able to meet both my expectations and the expectations of my family, as well as somehow find a balance between passion and what I viewed as being successful. I felt like I couldn’t make anyone happy, not even myself, so I just quit. But what I should have done was seek some additional, professional advice. There are so many wonderful student resources and communities at Boise State that have helped me feel like I fit in. I know now that my student journey is not any less valuable than anyone else’s.
Putting your idea to the test
Eric Bork, the author of the book, points out that more time should be spent on drafting up an incredible idea instead of starting with a mediocre one and building a whole bunch of other little ideas around it to try and help the first one make more sense. Dizzying, right? So, the plan is that you spend a lot of time coming up with a solid idea, one that feels right, one that can stand the test of time, and one that you’re not afraid of receiving criticism about, because that’s a big part of it.
Bouncing your idea off of other people is the meat and potatoes of creativity. And it’s really hard to get over that initial fear that just because one idea, maybe the first idea, isn’t the best solution to your problem that somehow that reflects poorly on you, the creator! Which certainly isn’t true.
Think of it this way, the book says that only a teeny, tiny percentage of writers become seriously successful ones. I mean Hollywood, box office, smash hit, best-selling successful. And that’s not because most writers are bad, definitely not. It’s because they aren’t ready to hear “no” and aren’t willing to go back to the drawing board, try again, and come up with something better. They stick with the first idea, create an entire story around it, and are crushed when it’s rejected after spending countless hours on it only to still have someone say, “no thanks.”
How you can control the results
What’s wonderful about this bit of inspiration is that you can be that person for yourself a lot of the time. You can think and begin to plan out your idea, kind of like a test drive, to see if it will work for you long-term. Like this article from The Muse explains how you can help decide if an idea is the right one for you in 4 steps: “1. Get clear on what you really want, 2. Don’t choose something just because you’re supposed to, 3. Remember that doing something trumps doing nothing, 4. Practice being decisive.” The more that you repeat steps 1 through 3, the idea will become clearer to you and you’ll have an easier time with step 4.
However, don’t forget a crucial part of this process. Once you feel like you’ve got a solid idea, you’ve taken it through the steps, you’ve test-driven it a little bit—now it’s time for peer review.
It’s important that you’re open to bouncing your ideas off of others who have been through similar things. This is why advisors, professors, mentors, and other experts are an excellent resource. Each of them also had to make that terrifying decision whether or not to take that job, decide if they should go to grad school, or stick with the idea of becoming a teacher. Whatever your idea is, there are people out there that can help you polish it to glowing perfection before you have to take that first, daunting leap.
By the time you get all the way here, to the end, you’ll know that you have a good idea. You’ll feel like you’ve got solid direction because you’ve tested it. So now, all you’ve got left to do is tell your story.