The Writer as Inventor

inventorOver the holidays, as our family  was participating in the 2012 Winter Flu Olympics, we spent much time on the couch, watching Phineas and Ferb cartoons.

There is much I love about this show, but my most favorite is the evil Dr. Doofenschmirtz, inventor of all sorts of “-inators,” (the Bigger-inator, the Resolution Changer-inator, the Dill Pickle-inator), all designed to take over The Entire Tri-State Areaaaaaa!

Thus inspired, my eight-year-old started inventing. A Citrus Peeler. A Bed-Maker.  An Automatic Snack-inator. To date, she has fifty-four inventions in her invention journal.

I have always considered her an artist, not an inventor, but pondering the distinction, I wondered if artists (including writers) are actually just a unique branch of inventors.

Sure, my novel will not have the impact of sliced bread. Nor will it make humans more efficient. It will not simplify our nutty world.

But writers are inventors in that we strive to build never-before-seen stories and characters, with the hope that these stories and characters will illuminate an idea, connect the lonely or inspire authentic emotion in others. Inventors create machines and ideas that improve the world; likewise, writers create stories that improve the world . . . so we can take over The Entire Tri-State Areaaaaaa!


But I’m not kidding about this: if we are to be inventors of published stories, we need to foster the traits and adopt the trappings of other famous inventors. I’ve come up with six (using my patented Inventor Trait-inator).

Passionate curiosity. Inventors want to improve the world. Story inventors want to understand it. Last week I watched a magenta helium balloon float silently up my street. It was beautiful, that splotch of cheer against the otherwise greys-and-browns January day. Yet it was also determined. Where was that balloon going in such a hurry? Where had it been? Was it enjoying its freedom, or was it terrified and lonely and scrambling to get to its destination?

Had I not had to get my kids to school, I would have hopped in the car and followed that balloon. I wanted needed to know its secret, helium-filled life. That’s what story inventors do: we see the balloon and we need to follow it, with the hope that it will take us on an adventure. And, ideally, teach us some stuff about stuff.

Obsessive focus on a single project. While building our plots and characters, we story inventors need to have obsessive focus that allows us to ignore unwashed dishes, unanswered emails, unfolded laundry. We also need to surround ourselves with others who aren’t overly-offended by that obsessive focus. The fabulous Yuvi Zalkow has an interview “with” Elizabeth McCracken about the importance of obsession. Check it.

Loyalty to the project. There will be other hot book ideas that wink at us in a bar. These book ideas will have a nice tush and ride a motorcycle. They won’t have morning breath. They will know all the words to Les Mis songs and will probably sing the melody so you can sing the harmony. They will surprise you with peonies and coconut green tea, just because.

But you, oh loyal inventor, will know this truth: as alluring as those perfect Other Stories are, especially when you are knee-deep in revisions, trying to cut a character or attempting to Jell-O wrestle with plot, you made a vow. You fell in love with that story, enough to commit years of your life to it, even when it wasn’t earning you a dime. That loyalty (if you remain loyal) will pay off.

Clarity of a specific goal. Succeeding story inventors know what they hope to achieve. Is the goal to be filthy rich? Fine. Is the goal to write a particular story, even after everyone says it’s a lousy idea? Fine. Having that clear goal helps us understand our trajectory; we can see our process and progress as a line rather than as a single dot. The ability to see our progress is essential, especially during the dark times of our writing life.

Healthy amounts of fear and foolishness. Steve Jobs, in his 2005 commencement speech to Stanford graduates, said this: “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

One part of our brain will dissuade us from entering scary, fool-making situations, but story inventors have another brain-part that knows fear and potential foolishness are not nearly as tragic as the decision to Not Create. Is writing challenging? Oui. Will I feel foolish if I can’t sell my book? Sí. If I do get my book published, will I get nasty reviews? Ja. But does the joy of writing (almost always) override my fear of foolishness? YES!

Finally, Board of Trustees. My Board (trusted writing partners, the WU community, my husband) doesn’t tell me what I want to hear; it tells me what I need to know in order to be a succeeding writer. My Board assures me when my passion is grounded in something real and worthwhile, and it shepherds me when I have strayed from the path. We must make sure we have this, or we will start inventing stories akin to the Dill Pickle-inator.

Ayn Rand said, “An inventor is a man who asks ‘why?’ of the universe and lets nothing stand between the answer and his mind.”

Indeed. Writers combine their obsessive curiosity about humankind, and the desire to better understand a few of the world’s whys. The product is an invention that, if all goes well and right, will make the world just a scosh more beautiful and a bit less lonely and confusing.

Interested in more? Colin Stewart divides inventors (from Picasso to Edison to Twain) into two groups of innovators–Seekers and Finders–to illuminate our discrete paths of artistic achievement. Check that out, too!

But before you go, please share: In what other ways are writers actually inventors? What “inator” would be especially helpful as you are working on your Invention-in-Progress? With which famous inventor (from Steve Jobs to Picasso to Nikola Tesla) do you most identify? Please share!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to commission my daughter to design a Work-in-Progress-inator! Mwah ha haaaaa!

Inventor photo courtesy of Flickr’s Burns Library


About Sarah Callender

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter and is currently working on a novel titled BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE ORANGES. Sarah is a terrible house-cleaner, a lover of chocolate and hats, and a self-professed cheapskate who has no trouble spending money on good chocolate and hats.


  1. says

    Fun and profound post, Sarah. In answer to the questions of a) how does the ‘invention’ concept resonate in my writing and b) what inventor is my favorite:

    * Basic character invention is, for me, ground zero. The further you go with backgrounding a fictional person, the more real they are and the more natural their consequent actions, good and bad.
    * I vote for Henry Ford despite his bigotry and meanspiritedness, especially to his son, Edsel. Henry didn’t invent the auto but he sure put it on the map…as well as aircraft (the Ford Tri-motor), the airport hotel (Dearborn Inn), the Fordson Tractor, integrated manufacturing (the River Rouge plant) and lots more.

    Wonderful, perspective-enhansing post. Huzzah!

    • says

      Thanks, Alex. I always look forward to your thoughtful comments! I so agree with your comments about Ford . . . sometimes the most brilliant innovators have a hard time being kind to their fellow humans. Maybe that’s because they are too devoted to their inventions? Maybe they forget their humility?

      Thanks for taking the time to comment and share!

  2. says

    Sarah, I found this post to be a profound encouragement this morning (reading it as I should be getting ready for work). Thinking like an inventor is a wonderful way of approaching creative life… I love your emphasis on loyalty: “You fell in love with that story, enough to commit years of your life to it, even when it wasn’t earning you a dime.” That certainly describes little ol’ unpublished me… and helps me realize that my devotion to the story I am writing isn’t a fool’s errand after all. Because writing that lovely story is what matters most! Thanks!

    • says

      So true, Jillian. For the record, little old unpublished me thinks (and hopes) the very same thing. Thank you so much for reading, and taking the time to comment. I hope you made it to work on time! :)

  3. says

    Lordie, Sarah, this is a great post. I’ve pondered it for the last half hour or so, looking up inventors to see if I might have a favorite to name. I do love Ben Franklin, and Wikipedia claims he is responsible for the social invention of “pay it forward.” This makes me love him a little more.

    You wrote, “My Board assures me when my passion is grounded in something real and worthwhile.” Maybe that could go a little further. Writers are also like inventors in that we are aware of a niche that our work will fill. That sense of “this is fresh and new and people need it in their lives” helps motivate us onward.

    Thank you!

    p.s. Remind me to tell you sometime about my list of someone-beat-me-to-it inventions, and the new app I’m sure will make me millions. Oh, can you put baby carrots in the Dill Pickle-inator? Because if you can, then I want one. I also want a cup of coconut green tea; talk about inventive.

    • says

      Yes! Here’s the link to a fab tea shop: Maybe some day we’ll visit it when you come to Seattle!

      Thanks so much for your comment, Therese. I didn’t know that tidbit about Ben Franklin. I just thought he invented lightning! :)

      I would LOVE to hear about your would-have-been inventions. Knowing you, they are brilliant and creative. It’s so hard to be behind the trend, no?

      Your comment about how our books can fill a niche is brilliant, too. Your book certainly did.

  4. says

    I love this post on so many levels, particularly in our shared love of Phineas and Ferb. (The singers introducing the mad scientist’s scenes in sing-songy “Doofenschmirtz’s ex wife’s sports sedan” is hilarious.)

    I love that your daughter has a journal of inventions.

    I’m also glad to be reminded of the importance of writing–the lonely looking for company, readers in search of learning empathy, a new world view. It makes brutality in revision all the more important–these scenes need weight!

    Off to go hit my work-in-progress-inator.

    • says

      I should have known you’d also love Phineas and Ferb. I cannot tell you how many P and F references my husband and I make in a given week. Sad, I know, but it keeps us laughing together!

      My cat peed on my purse the other day, and I was certain he had just taken a ride in the Very Very Bad-inator!!!!

      I love what you said about our scenes needing weight. You are right! We cannot change the world with our writing if our scenes are our stories are too airy.


  5. says

    I love that your Yeses are multilingual. I’m also intrigued by the tea.

    At present my inventions would run to hankie-to-nose-inator, which is to say I have fogged thinking from a cold–but–Sarah, I love your effervescent voice and outlook. If we cold bottle it and ship it to parts of the world in need of some cheer this morning, now *that* would be an invention.

  6. says

    I agree with Erika, lovely on so many levels, Sarah! And as with Jillian, I am most struck by loyalty. I can’t find a way to explain to most people in my day-to-day life how difficult it is–how many anguished nights I’ve spent grappling with this issue. After spending nine years and counting on my project, but I have routinely questioned whether or not to shelve it and move on. It wrenches me like few other issues can. I guess, since I keep on keeping on, I’ve been loyal–perhaps foolishly so, and always with fear lingering in the rafters of my belfry. So I guess that’s two down on your list.

    Thanks for being on my Board!

    • says

      Amen, Vaughn. I know that feeling of spending close to a decade on a single work. But that flapping fear in your belfry? That’s healthy too . . . it hasn’t dissuaded you, but I think healthy amounts of doubt and fear keep us growing and improving our work. It’s that healthy-amounts-of fear that keeps us on our toes.

      Maybe writers are like ballet dancers, too. Always on our toes.

      Vaughn, you are the embodiment of loyalty. I can see that, and I’ve never even met you!

  7. Denise Willson says

    Seriously, Sarah, this post was awesome. Makes me happy to be part of something so willing to give hope and heartfelt insight.

    Thank you, Sarah, thank you all.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  8. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    Great post. Gets the mind rolling. I would also take it one step further, and say that inventors sometimes evolve into creators. Creators of entire alternate worlds.

  9. says

    I found myself in a place that tried to take every moment of my time and creativity bubbled forth in songs and poems when I had a mental break, even when changing diapers! Ideas found their way to stacks of binders and post-it notes. They would not be silenced. I began to demand an hour or two, here and there, when my children were small and wrote terribly. But gentle people pointed it out and I kept trying. Now seeing the vast sea of other writers, paddling to the horizon, is discouraging. One woman said, “It might only be important that your story reaches one person.” That helps to keep me going.

    I am currently at a point where I am considering abandoning my current work in progress, jumping ship…another one keeps beckoning….

    How do we make that decision? I feel like I have not quite been fair to it, haven’t given it enough exposure, so I do intend to spend more time working to get it out there, but my mind seems intent on also dallying a bit with the other.

    • says

      Ceejae, you raise the million-dollar question: when to jump ship. It’s so hard to see our work objectively, no? For me, sometimes, the best and only answer lies in the responses from my writing pals. I know they will speak the truth, even when the truth is not fun to hear. But I also know they can see the potential of a story, and that’s essential, too.

      Maybe you can write a few pages of brainstorming “stuff” for the sexy idea . . . then you’ll see if it stays sexy or if that exercise just makes you long for the “old” one. Probably you know, deep down, what you should do. Way deep down. Best of luck! :)

  10. says

    Your entire post was smile-making. I adore the Steve Jobs quote about already being naked. I need the reminder to not take my writing journey so seriously that it makes me crazy, that the choice to remain foolish is a viable one, and one that won’t kill me. Thanks!

  11. says

    Love your perceptive comments. Sounds so much like my husband and I who are both authors. But then again, he is also an artist so that makes him doubly obsessive about attention to detail! Hope everyone is feeling better.

    • says

      Thanks, Barbara. I have often wondered how my life would be different if I had married someone with an equal passion for creating inconsistent, low-paying work.

      How nice that you understand each other’s creative process. I don’t think my husband totally gets it, but he is totally supportive. I’m a very lucky writer.

      Thank you for your thoughts!

  12. says

    Sarah! I love how you bring together these different-but-related traits to the inventing process…. Even though I admit I’m a little obsessed with the trait related to obsession, that trait alone is not enough.

    I have given particular attention this month to the “Board of Trustees”. It is a tricky one, I’m learning, because the board members may change over time. A board member for project #1 may not be the best board member for project #2. But whoever it is, I think it’s so important to have some sort of board, regardless of whether it is a half dozen people or just one. I guess I even have some board members who are no longer even alive… though I still try imagine how they would respond to the things I write…. and how they would curse at me in clever ways… One of my board members even has his own yiddish-curse-word-inator.

    What a fabulous post, Sarah.

    • says

      Oh, I love this, Yuvi. Your deceased Board . . . it’s kind of like WWJD, but (obviously) very different. What Would Raymond Carver Do? What Would Mrs. Gillfillan (my 4th grade teacher)Do? What would Grandpa Schmuel Do?

      I have heard of many a writer writing with the voice of another (a gentle but honest critic) in their heads. It’s quite brilliant, really.

      Thank you, Yuvi, for your obsession contribution. (And today, it’s sunny in Portland! Thank you for arranging that, too!)

    • says

      Ack! Don’t even get my started about how much I have had to fork over to the Seattle Public Library System. I will be first in line to buy your automatic renewinator. And can you please invent an automatic library book finderinator? Library DVDs are the worst. It’s like there’s a black hole specifically for library DVDs. Of course, I don’t mind “donating” to the library.

      Thank you for the laugh!

  13. Hope Benson says

    I enjoyed this post. I will never be able to sit with my kids and watch Phineas and Ferb again without hearing the call of my POV from the other room. Considering how much my kids love that show, I should have no shortage of motivation. So my POV is just like an “-inator”? Makes me want to strive even harder to do it right so it works. Thank you.

  14. says

    First, has there ever been a better cartoon than Phineas & Ferb? I don’t think so.

    Second, Loyalty…that is what I struggle with. So many ideas, so little time. Which is one reason I’m focusing on short stories this year. Much easier to give those little ideas wings and send them on their way before buckling down to a new novel without those little distractions.

    Third, what about a Niche Audience Finder-inator? Now that would be something special. ;)

    • says

      Brilliant, Erin, both to write short fiction AND to create the niche finderinator.

      Makes me think we should invent a whole line of products under the heading of Marketing and PR-inators. That’s certainly something with which I could use a little assistance.

      Happy writing to you!

  15. laura says

    This was a joy to read. I am so glad you’re an inventor, and clearly some most excellent genes have been passed along to your daughter. Happy new year and may some more magenta and other magnificient balloons float through that grey Seattle sky soon. xo Laura

  16. says

    Your comment about story loyalty really caught my attention. My imagination rarely shuts off, so I ahve to force it from coming up with new ideas when I’m hip deep into writing one already.

    It’s like that attractive blond that winks at you from across the bar. You need to remember you’re seeing someone. Hopefully, however, we aren’t just finishing with one person and moving onto another like we are with our stories. :-D

  17. says

    I’ve always been a writer and an inventor. In a few weeks I’ll be launching a Kickstarter project for two games I’ve invented (there are 4 altogether, 2 still in development). I created a deck chair that you could fold in such a way as to have a tray (or not). And then there’s the shower thingy . . . Yep, we’re inventors. Thanks.

  18. says

    Lots of interesting points to think about. To me writers and inventors are intertwined. I imagine that future inventor being a small being introduced to stories and in those stories seeing possibilities and imagination. (Have you seen that series on the Science channel about sci-fi writers? It is fascinating how many inventions those writers imagined but never made are actually in existence now thanks to an inventor.) Stories teach us about what else is possible and spark imagination.

    And then more writers come along and see more inventions in the world and imagine how the future or how a life now will be influenced by said invention.

    On another note, difficult as Jobs may have been as a person, he had many great insights. I love that commencement speech of his and I use it in my classes. And in the last few days I’ve gotten health news that has put a stronger light on the knowledge that our time is limited. Why waste time letting fear control our choices?

    • says

      Such a great comment, Marta. Thank you. I loved your line about how we writers are able to imagine what is possible. That is certainly an essential part of being an inventor. Thank you for that addition!

      Yes, letting fear control our actions and dictate our choices is such a waste. Thank you for taking the time to comment. I so appreciate it.