Last week a student asked if it’s problematic when the original idea or prompt for a story doesn’t seem to connect (or is entirely absent) from the finished piece. The student is on a formal writing program, and was coming at this from the perspective of having her work graded, but it got me thinking about the relationship between initial idea and its evolution, and how attached we can become to aspects of our writing that don’t necessarily serve the story.
Firstly, I think creative people of all kinds have a kind of romantic relationship with their embryonic ideas. These ideas can come to us slowly or in a sudden flash of realisation, but they often have the sunrise glow of something new and exciting, as though we’ve been gifted something we didn’t know we needed. Humans are designed to feel attached to the things that inspire emotion in us (especially a sense of wonder or love), so it seems natural that this would happen with thoughts too.
The next stage is where you’re searching around for where the story might go, who or what is going to inhabit that space, what you want to say, what the events might mean. During this time your mind is wanting to make connections, looking for space where growth can occur and identify some building blocks to progress the story. You are thinking divergently, and while your original idea is likely to still be present in your mind, it’s important that you hold onto it loosely, so those other unexpected and thrilling connective thoughts can rise up and find you.
And then at some point you start making decisions, tying in the connections you’ve found to plot your rising conflict, character development and theme, as well as thinking about technique to find the best way to show this new expression of yourself. Here you might suddenly realise the piece has moved away from that original great line or character idea, and you might even find yourself trying to shoehorn it into the story, but dammit, it doesn’t seem to fit anymore and there’s a wriggling sensation deep in your stomach that’s remarkably like guilt. You’ve been unfaithful. You’ve been carrying on an illicit affair with this new piece of writing when you’d already started a Big New Thing with something else that was too small and innocent to know what it was getting itself into.
But… let’s have a shift in perspective here. What if that first idea was actually a magnificent first date? And what if that first date grew into a long-term relationship? And what if that relationship had depth and truth and oodles of wonderful images and illuminating moments?
This is the new world you’ve created, and none of it could have happened without that first date, which ultimately, will always still exist in your memory.
And so, my answer to the student who was worried about her grade was along these lines. Give your work space to grow and evolve, let it become something beyond what you thought you were capable of envisioning. The only things you need to stay faithful to are your attention to the work, telling the truth, evolving yourself as a person, and as a writer.
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