The Importance of Ad Hoc Facility

Science-Fiction_Handbook_ReI think I'm getting feisty and rebellious in my old age.

I'm currently working up an idea for a new short story, but I didn't want the day to pass without having met my daily writing goal. I 'wasted' the first one or two hours of my working day browsing old favourites on the writing of science fiction to refresh myself on their instruction for idea generation. One book I consulted was L. Sprague and Catherine C. de Camp's Science Fiction Handbook, Revised. I loved this book as a youth and I still like it, but "Those Crazy Ideas," the de Camps' chapter on generating ideas was, well, frustratingly vague (ooh, a damnable adverb! kill it! nah. this one ought to be allowed to live, Mark Twain's advice be damned) , as well as depressing.

. . . a writer should not wait too long before starting to write. Creative imagination varies with time. With many, it seems to reach its peak in late adolescence or early adulthood and thereafter slowly to decline. Hence many writers start out with a stock of highly original ideas but express them in crude, verbose style. As they get older, they learn to express themselves more clearly and elegantly, but their ideas become less original. With each new story, they have to struggle harder not to repeat themselves. As an editor once shrewdly observed, fiction writing is the only craft that gets harder with practice.

The editor to whom the de Camps referred, according to their footnote, was "Charles S. Ingerman of the Ladies Home Journal, in a speech at the Philadelphia Regional Writers' Conference, June 20, 1951." And yet many often say, as author Tess Gerritsen once told me in a response to a comment I'd left at her blog, that unlike many professional pursuits writing is one profession you can start at any age. I would think that if a writer is struggling not to repeat themselves, regardless of their age, that they're either suffering from self-imposed limitations such as the idea that one is bound to a fate of repetition as one ages, or from outdated and obnoxious ideas such as the idea that one is bound to a fate of repetition as one ages. (Oh, shit! o.o I'm repeating myself!)

Annoyed with this quote from the de Camps, I decided to sit down to write something completely disposable. It's important for a writer to remain well-practiced and facile, and I'm often given to writing on a whim with no pre-planning whatsoever, so I sat at my keyboard and wrote.

I began with this:

“Oh, yes,” de Camp said, “there is no doubt whatsoever that the mind atrophies with age. It follows, then, that the imagination must likewise atrophy. It’s as inevitable and as inexorable as death itself.”

“And taxes,” St. James said. “Don’t forget taxes.”

de Camp scowled at this remark.

Rereading this makes me laugh as much as it did when I first wrote it. Three hours later I was finished, having written 1,372 words in an opening which bears the signs of international intrigue. In fact, it has already captured my imagination. It's not the sort of story I usually write, and it flies in the face of such conventional advice as "write what you know," but it's piqued my interest and I'll continue with the writing of it until such time that I've drawn up a workable fantasy idea and a story outline to accompany it. Perhaps I'll continue writing it, even after I've come up with an idea for a new fantasy story.

Please don't misunderstand me. I still like the de Camps and their book is chock full of valuable and usable advice. What happened today was the result of annoyance and a desire to beat the shit out of a depressing idea. Tomorrow, that idea shall be bloodied further with continued beatings.

2 comment(s):

gypsyharper said...
December 15, 2009 3:04 PM

Wow, that is an incredibly depressing quote. I refuse to believe it. :) Although it's true that I had a lot of ideas when I was younger, and equally true that my writing at the time was largely "crude and verbose" (I do find something every once in a while that I like though), I don't think my imagination is dying out with age. I certainly hope not!

g d townshende said...
December 15, 2009 3:49 PM

I absolutely refuse to believe it, too, Leslie. I've been writing more as I get older, and I think my ideas are anything but a repeat of things I've already done. In fact, I dare say that my ideas now are more original than the things I wrote when I was in my adolesence or early adulthood. Back then, my writing was not only "crude and verbose," but also imitative.

I'm actually of the opinion that anything... ANYTHING!... can be a source of inspiration. It's simply a matter of being open and receptive.

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