There are wire bins in my office, marked with the titles of different projects. One bin, however, is just labeled “Ideas.” Sometimes I throw plot lines in that bin. Sometimes I’ll write the title of a possible future novel — with nothing else because I don’t know anything else but the title.
Mostly, however, I toss in one-liners. I don’t put these one-liners in a word document because I like the physical reminder — they sit in bins on shelves in my peripheral vision. Physical space is important. It’s why I worry about e-readers. How many times have I been saved because I shoved myself back from my desk and gazed at my bookshelf. Invariably when I do this, my eyes land on a title, and I pull the book out, open it randomly, and find some footing. Some writer — with some random lines plucked from the middle of a book they wrote ages ago — throws me a life jacket across time and distance via language and image, and I’m thankful. I don’t claim to understand that process. I just know it works for me. I need the bins to be part of my terrarium.
The bins are also important because they remind me that I don’t just have a bunch of blank pages to fill. I have something to fill them with. I don’t have to create from nothing.
And so you might now be able to imagine the way I often work — a process of quilting, assemblage by way of parts. In fact, when I come to the end of a novel I’ve written, I can usually open the book, point to a line, and explain where it came from. It’s also how I like to judge a book I might want to read. I’ll take in the opening sentence and then flip through it, land on line, flip again, land on a line, flip again, land on a line, and then decide. Does the mystery of the gaps between the random lines hold my interest?
Here are a few one-liners from my recent novel — The Future for Curious People — co-written with Gregory Sherl. They aren’t all exact quotes from the novel, but close. Some of these lines are his, some mine, some a mix, and some may have started out as scrawl on a scrap and dropped in a bin. These are certainly the kinds of bits that fill my Ideas bin.
Definition of a librarian: a zookeeper of all the bookish heartbeats.
Gloria Burkes saving once-loved pet bunnies that have been abandoned is an obvious metaphor for Gloria Burkes saving Gloria Burkeses.
I worry that Bart has turned into a gossip who sometimes wears various kinds of facial hair — with irony.
If everyone suddenly decides to ditch med school and go into investment banking for a cushy life, who will install the pacemakers on all the investment bankers when their tickers fail?
Sometimes I wish I could reverse time and start over from the beginning — my first wail.
Defining a relationship: Madge puts her arm around me like a fellow sailor and we’re hunting giant whales, kraken. Maybe we’re in a submarine, sitting on tons and tons of nuclear warheads.
I only eat sushi that’s well done.
It’s a fact that a man about to propose is cuter than a basket of kittens and a squirrel Jet Skiing in an above-ground pool.
Each person you love leaves his or her stain, and the way you remember him is like a smell, a taste, a color — indescribable but distinct.
How to quit your job. Shout the following:
“What’s that smell? It’s the smell of petty tyranny. It’s the smell of dying souls. It’s the stench of unlived lives!”
After quitting your job:
Godfrey: That look you don’t recognize, that weirdness — it’s freedom!
Gunston: Really? Because it looks kind of shroomy.
Madge talks with her hands as if carving air, laughs so loud she snorts, knows all the lyrics to the Kinks, and talked me out of a bad tattoo.
As a kid I went to the library because in books there were people really living lives, and unlike my parents, they talked to me about important things.
Once you understand that each book on the shelf of a library has a heartbeat, then you’ll want to stay.
Librarians tend books the way someone in an aviary tends birds.
Robert Frost defined home as “the place where, when you have to go there,/ They have to take you in.” Ditto public libraries.
These are also the kinds of lines that, if I’m forced to cut them, I paste them at the end of the document I’m working in. Here, they stall in case I find a way to reinsert them into the novel. If the novel gets sewn up and they’re not of use, then they get printed and dropped in the Ideas bin. In this way I never have to “kill my darlings,” as Faulkner put it. I only have to move my darlings — to a new bin.
It’s much less bloody.
If you, too, salvage darlings, what’s your process? Do you leave yourself a visual breadcrumb trail to possible inspirations, via bins or something like it? The floor is yours.