HOW TO DETERMINE WHAT YOUR NEXT PROJECT WILL BE
A blogger asked me how I came up with my next book. I'd never thought about the process before. I was momentarily stumped. I told her I'd get back to her. How did I come up with ideas in the past?
Determining a project has never been a deeply conscious effort. I often start as I’m doing here, with a topic, a vague idea, and I just start typing. For example, a play I wrote that’s never been produced takes place on a New York City garbage barge that goes to the South to dump its load. When people protest in the Southern port town, another Southern city has agreed to take it. The small crew fights among each other what to do next. The barge hits the high seas again, only to be turned away. They keep getting turned away throughout the Caribbean. After picking up people from a sinking ship, The barge becomes lost in the Bermuda Triangle. It’s funny in a Samuel-Beckett-like way. The production costs, I figured, are minimal. You just need a stage and garbage.
I bring this up because not every idea is necessarily commercial. I follow my curiosity and instincts.
What many people don’t understand is that writing is thinking. I didn’t know if writing this play would interest me at first, so I simply wrote some. It became so interesting that I ended up taking a UCLA class in existentialism after a few drafts. Beckett wrote after World War II, when existentialism was big. My play would have to be considered post-existential. I took this class to really understand what I was writing. I was obsessed.
It occurs to me that obsession is a good thing for a writer to have. After all, any writing project will take months if not years. You better be curious and unstoppable.
So, how did I get the topic of a garbage barge in the first place, and how did I choose to even try writing about it? I’d heard a news story about a real garbage barge being turned away. I had an odd thought: how weird would it be to captain a barge of garbage that no one accepts? Who wants garbage in the first place?
Then, as if the universe was directing me, I heard a song on an alternative radio station. The song had a chorus, “I’m a garbage barge captain, and I have nowhere to go.” Ah! Let me pursue that. My protagonist would be a garbage barge captain lost on the seas as we are all lost in our world. Aren’t people feeling particularly lost now that they have to stay at home? Maybe I was ahead of my time.
I use that play to illustrate that a) what playwrights and fiction writers do is weird, b) almost any job is weird when you think of it; how would you like to be Anthony Fauci working for a president who suggests an intravenous shot of detergent? And c) follow your bliss. Your curiosity may take you places.
Another example is in my most recent short story collection, The Benefits of Breathing. I needed at least one more story. What should I write about? Nothing sprang to mind because my 91-year-old father had just put himself in hospice care at home, even though he had nothing killing him per se. However, old age had taken away his concentration to read; he didn’t have the stamina anymore for golf; his hearing was declining. Like the Indian chief in the old film Little Big Man, my dad decided it was his day to die. However, it took him nine months.
Before he passed, though, his state of mind captured me. If he was awake, he was happy to talk, intrigued by his decline. “I stood up today, and my legs just gave out. I hit my head on the floor,” he told me on the phone. Rather than run from his state, he talked about it. Rather than not think about it, I wrote a story imagining his death.
My father was sleeping about twenty-two hours a day then, and he told me he was dreaming not of important people in his life, but of people he barely knew, people from way back, such as a client he had golfed with or an old elementary school teacher he didn’t particularly like. That’s where my story started. I wasn’t sure it would become a full story. In the end, it’s the title story, The Benefits of Breathing.
What might my next project be? I don’t know. I’m waiting for something to strike a chord. I mentioned the coronavirus here, but soon such stories will appear by the boxcar load by people battling boredom while feeling frightened. Maybe I could approach the topic in a metaphorical way. All I know is my next project will be a) fictional and b) it’ll be about something.
My best suggestion is write what doesn't bore you. If it starts get boring, then have the characters do something that makes you laugh or jump. Be interesting to yourself, and you'll likely be interesting to others.
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.