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The Writer as Inventor

inventor [1]Over 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. [2]

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 [3], 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 [4]

About Sarah Callender [5]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.