Ideas as Commodities

I love how it looks like the ladder-backed woodpecker and the finch are having a conversation over breakfast.

The common wisdom these days is that ideas are cheap and everything is in the execution. Young writers – and by this I mean, new to the game – are frequently advised not to worry about someone stealing their ideas because 1) there are no new ideas, 2) writing is about how you tell the story and 3) you can’t stop them anyway.

This is all true.

It’s also true that ideas are easy to come by. The aforementioned young writers often ask established writers – never Old Writers, please – where they get their ideas. Inevitably the established writers will reply that getting ideas is not a problem. It’s having the time and energy to write them all that’s the problem. Also, I think it’s a flow thing – the more you write, the more stories come to you. In some ways, it’s like the young writers and the established writers are speaking different languages. Which is why the established writers will eventually say, sometimes in frustration, just keep writing and you’ll have ideas.

So, if this is true, that ideas are easily come by, then there’s nothing wrong with giving them away.

Indeed, I see people operating as if this is true. They ask on Twitter for ideas for blog posts. And clearly people suggest those ideas. A common lament among writers is that people will offer them story ideas – often of the person’s incredibly interesting (self-perceived) personal history. Of course, in those cases, the incredibly interesting person will think there’s an intrinsic value in their story idea and will try to negotiate a deal. The writer, knowing ideas are a dime a dozen, will decline.

But – are they really?

See, the other reason that this never works – the, hey, why don’t you write my incredibly interesting story scenario – is because it’s not the idea itself, but the fire behind it. That’s what the writer needs. That burning image. The seed of creativity. The story that’s begging to be told, that unwinds itself in loops in the writer’s brain, crowding out everything else. Those ideas? Those are beyond worth.

It puts me in mind of a quote from Robert Bly: “Be careful how quickly you give away your fire.”

Most people interpret this as, don’t yammer too much about your story idea, or you can lose all the oompf behind it, which is also good advice. But it’s come back to me lately because a writing friend asked me for help. She wanted to incorporate certain things into her new book, dynamics that I happen to write well.

Now, I’m big on giving help. I’m a believer in being generous, in the bounty of the universe, and normally I wouldn’t hesitate. In fact, I help friends all the time with brainstorming or plot difficulties or sorting out these kinds of dynamics. I enjoy it and find it feeds me, too.

But, in this case, she asked for more than I was willing to give. At first I wasn’t sure why – just that I balked internally. Then I realized that she was asking for a big piece of my fire. She wanted me to give her, not just an idea, but a whole story, with all the seeds of magic ready to grow.

I tried to find a way to give her only guidance. Then she needed to move on and I was off the hook.

The whole thing, though, made me think.

In fact, I had to create a whole new batch of tags for this post – which, you know, is something I’m trying not to do – because it’s not something I’ve really mulled over before.

I’m still mulling, coiled like a dragon over my treasure.

Not my usual place to be.

6 Replies to “Ideas as Commodities”

  1. Love the dragon image!

    To continue the fire analogy, I think there’s a difference between using your fire to light someone else’s torch and giving them your own torch. The first costs nothing, but the second can leave you out in the cold.

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