Idea Generation Strategies — Little Gems of Self-Indulgence

Trying to write without self-indulgence is like striving to eat a sundae without ice cream. Conceit permeates the endeavor, which can degenerate into excessive naval-gazing or into painful tedium that’s barely even interesting to the writer. Examining previous writings is often like looking back on my teenage years when I thought I knew something about philosophy, or religion, or the virtues of lederhosen… ouch. Don’t do that.

But is a little self-indulgence a bad thing?

During my 365 days of story, self-indulgence was sometimes all I could manage to regurgitate into a submission. Although the results were of an “insider” nature, they often turned out pretty well in the scheme of things, and they carried me through some barren moments of brainstorming.

Did they satisfy the reader, though? I hope so.

One type came through reminiscences, such as elements of my childhood in Day 52: Snakes and Tadpoles and Wasps and Things or such as the mood of an actual frat-house Tupperware party evinced in Day 83: The Pampered Chef Party Crashers. I suspect I enjoyed these a lot more than the readers because they reflect the little entertainments of my own life. They’re interesting in their own right, but not the kind of “gem” I always hope for. Still better than naval lint.

Another species arises from triumphs and survival. By their nature they were more indulgent than reminiscences, yet these had more real-life emotion and irony built into them. Day 112: Nice Throw tells an event I experienced almost exactly as it happened, but through the eyes of a fictional character. Surviving a three-tailed tornado (yes—three tails) drove the writing in two stories, Day 290: Big Wind and another that I kept in reserve. “Big Wind” is one of Garbol the wizard’s stories, while the one in reserve reflected my true experiences more realistically—again, through the eyes of a fictional character.

In spite of the raw emotion in these, I still think “Snakes and Tadpoles” is more satisfying among them, but the stories became much more gratifying in a third species of self-indulgence—raging at the world. These stories rise above the rest.

Early this year with only a few months left of the 365 project, I took a job with a significant commute north of D.C. For a few weeks I took rush-hour traffic down I-270, I-495, and I-66 to my home in eastern Virginia. For a corn-fed Nebraska boy, the traffic was horrendous, but it still might have been livable had it not been for the complete disregard every driver had for every other driver. I submit to you that your hope for humanity will plummet if you regularly take this commute. There were no stereotypes—every color and creed behaved the same. The middle finger and the car horn were the cultural features that united them all.

Who better to act as the surrogate for my spleen than Garbol the wizard? In Day 306: Rush Hour with Garbol, the wizard endures very much the kinds of things I endured on those commutes, but with a little magic in the mix. I really enjoyed this one, and it was an effective… er… vehicle for exorcising my demons.

Also during the Flash-a-Day-for-a-Year project, I received a lease renewal document from my apartment managers, and the document revealed some despicable practices in the way they price gouge their captive market for the purpose of coercing them into alleviating their vacancy risk. It demonstrated unbelievable crooked disregard for their tenants, and it enraged me. I started arrangements to move away almost immediately after.

You will find sprinkled among my stories several slams against apartment agencies and bean counters in the greater Washington D.C. area, and they probably seem quite odd, but I had to get it out of my system and leak it to the world. Maligning these turds in random places probably didn’t enhance my stories any, but ultimately I dumped it all into Day 265: A Job Fit for a Robot. In this story, you can learn some of the details of what they did through the eyes of a robot decommissioned from dock work and reassigned to an apartment complex. The ending tells you very close to what I think of these real-life people. Something beneath lint, anyway.

As a writer, you might as well allow yourself a little self-indulgence. The bottom line is it can help you produce, and like any other method you might use, some stories will be better than others.

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