Ladies & Gents:
[Warning: cursing ahead]
There's a bit in Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic about when ideas come to you, and what happens when you say yes or no. A pretty good summary is here.
I'm often asked how I come up with ideas, and I haven't been very good at explaining it. I'm going to try now because I have a recent example.
See this story? It was published last week. I wrote the essay the day of the race. I ran a turkey trot that morning, and then after getting a bagel and having a beer while watching my town's holiday parade, I did what is probably the best part after running on a cold day: took a hot shower. I wanted to luxuriate in that radiating warmth as a reward for running a very hard race, and just as I was about to put shampoo onto my head, the first strings of that essay unspurled before me.
"FUCK," I said.
I didn't want to get out of the shower, but I knew that if I waited, I'd lose it, or only get a sliver of the good stuff that my brain was spitting out. So I kept repeating the lines over and over again in my head while I finished my shower, then I got out, wrapped myself in a towel, and wrote, edited and submitted the essay while still in that towel. I was cold and shivering by the end, but I got the damn thing down.
This is an extreme example of how this happens, and I don't even recommend it (I usually let something sit for at least 24 hours, and I should have here, but I just wanted it OUT the door). Most of the time, I'll get a wisp of an idea and type out fragments into my phone or into a Word document, then come back later to finish the piece. Sometimes I'll write the bulk of something and then a better way to kick off the story comes to me later (hopefully before I've submitted it to a publication).
Lightening bolts of inspiration are fantastic but waiting for them to come to you is not always a good idea. If I did that all the time, I wouldn't write as much as I do now, though the muse, inspiration, whatever you want to call it, comes in pieces. As I was hammering away at writing and editing Running: A Love Story, fragments to add or bits to include on segments I already wrote came to me at odd times. I tapped out the line "…when I already felt so flat and dull, like a winter sky tamped down by fat gray clouds" into my phone while on a run weeks after I thought I had finished that chapter. Some mornings, I woke up to see phrases I'd put into my phone in the middle of the night, like "treadmill of tradition" (though translating through what autocorrect thought I wanted to say was a challenge).
I'm writing this out to try to explain how this all works, which isn't easy because it's such a vaporous thing. I don't see it so much as magic as Gilbert does, but instead being in touch with thoughts running through my brain and what of those thoughts could make a great essay. It's something that's come with practice and writing personal essays since I was 18 years old. A friend asked if these came to me as a voice or a vision, and after stuttering and stumbling over the thought, I came up with "neither." It's just…there. If I'm lucky enough to get it down into a form that I can read and work with, it becomes something to share with you too.
Anyway…that's some Monday morning mumblings.
Speaking of the book! If you've pre-ordered the book, or plan on pre-ordering the book, stay tuned. We're going to be holding a contest for you folks in January. Also, I'm hatching a plan with a local bookstore on how to do customized, signed copies for readers who aren't in the Philadelphia area. Again, stay tuned!
"Trying to beat my 25-year-old self" for The New York Times
"No running out of ideas for holiday gifts" for The Philadelphia Inquirer
"10 cool products from The Running Event" for Zelle
What I'm Reading
Still on Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country. It's good, but I haven't had much time to read lately.
What I'm Watching
I'm almost done with the third season of Arrow. I'm ready for something non-superhero related after I'm done.