The Lake

No one has yet asked me that age-old questions asked of authors since the beginning of fiction. You know the one, the question every author dreads because there is no real answer to it. The queried author has a few options when the question comes up, like to deflect it with something witty or to spout some psychobabble that, though more accurate, would be far less interesting. So far, as I said, no one has asked me this question of questions, so I’ll ask it myself:

Where do I get my ideas?

And my answer–the lake. I don’t think this particular body of water has a name, nor does it need one. Naming a thing makes it too easy to locate and that’s not what we’re after. What it does have is a wide stretch of murky water and, beneath that becalmed surface, the stories swim around waiting to be caught and hauled in like fish. They’re not easy to find, those stories, but they are out there for someone with enough luck to find them and enough talent to fish them out. Like fish, you can’t really see the ideas until they break the surface, flipping into the air with scales shining against the sunlight, and even then they may never turn into anything other than “the one that got away” without the right combination of determination and skill to bring them in. Most writers, accomplished or not, have experienced that snapped line or fumbling hand, that wonderful idea that never found its way to completion. I have a few like that, still swimming along in the lake, waiting for me or another writer to pull them out and make them stories.

The lake is crowded. Authors of every ability and success level skim across its surface, rod and reel in hand. The biggest names, the Kings and Rowlings and Meyers of the world, fish there, too, and they know from experience where the big fish are and how to catch them. Many of the writers who want to be like them, who want to write like them, bring their canoes and john boats alongside those of their literary heroes, only to find them gone to new, isolated coves where the story population is not as depleted. Still, these copycats cast their lines, hoping for that one story the big guys missed, that one tale that will equalize them and create their own following. Mostly, these authors find disappointment instead of those keeper ideas that would allow them to build their own reputations, nothing to mount above the mantle and say “That’s the one that made me”. The closest these writers get are the rubber-coated fish that, while looking similar the real thing, turn ridiculous when they turn their animatronic heads and sing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” or something of the like.

Others of us sit back and watch from afar what the big authors are doing–how they cast their lines, how they reel in their catches, how they judge their fishing sites, and attempt to do the same on our own. Sometimes, though rarely, this pans out and the writer finds himself the sole occupant of a story-rich patch of water, a treasure trove of idea that pays dividends because the writer was brave enough, or foolish enough, to branch off in another direction and leave the heavy hitters behind. Sometimes, the writer casts his baited hook out over and over again, never finding so much as a nibble, but too stubborn to accept that no stories, no keepers, lie beneath the range of his cast.

Regardless of how crowded the lake is, there are always more fish/more stories out there. I know that I’m fishing in this lake, have seen the evidence in the ideas other successful writers have turned out. As I said in an earlier post (don’t ask me to find it and link to it because I’m running short on time), I’ve recently had several of my own ideas show up in the work of other writers that, even as coincidental as they are, are both exciting and frustrating. They tell me that I’m on the right track, fishing in the right waters, and it’s only a matter of time before I find that big idea swimming around in the dark waters. Then, it’s just a matter of hauling it in.

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About Lee Smiley

I write things. Maybe you'll read them.
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