Friday, December 9, 2011

Ruminations on the Back Burner

The sign that I'm finishing up the novel I'm working on is the way ideas start flowing for new books. Sometimes it's another crime novel, so I let the story grow, noting some of the details that are emerging, but otherwise I just ignore the whole thing until I'm finished with the one I'm working on. But sometimes it's a book idea that is unexpected. I have a number of these and I'm not sure what to do with them.

Graham Greene wrote a number of essays in addition to his novels and "entertainments," and in one collection he included short summaries of novels he never got around to writing--story ideas that felt full enough to capture his imagination just enough to inspire him to write them down. When I read these short treatments, I could feel the energy in them that would have been the narrative drive moving the story along. These were story ideas that worked. He doesn't say why he didn't write them, just that he didn't.

I have a list of ongoing projects, but some of them have been ongoing for years. A couple of them are actually complete--story collections, including one for Anita Ray stories, a novella set in India, a memoir about my years in India including a reminiscence of Lakshmee Amma, who died this fall in her eighties, and another book on the family farm (both real and imagined and also ideal) that dominated my family's life in one way or another for over a hundred years. I'm not sure these books will ever be written, but they hang around in my imagination like a task that I've been saving because it's more fun than work--gardening, making a special dish, hunting down research materials.

It would be terrific if I could just say, I have enough ideas to last me for a lifetime, which is true, but there's something more to this. When I read Graham Greene's summaries of his unwritten books, I could sense they were real and possible to him at that time. When I write summaries of my ideas, they also feel real and possible as I write them. But when I return months, even years later, I sense how I felt when I wrote the summary but I no longer feel the same way. Perhaps I could get back into the frame of mind that brought the ideas to the page, but maybe not. Perhaps those ideas have their time, and when the time is passed, it's best to move on.

I'll keep adding to my list, reviewing it, and think about reviving one or more of the projects, but when I feel an idea demanding to be worked on now, that's what I'll do. The others will wait, right where I left them, sitting on my desktop.


  1. There's a comfort to having an endless supply of ideas, tucked into a folder or notebook for future reference. I have a folder I call "Starts." It's fun to go back through it from time to time.

  2. I also have a file with summaries, sometimes only one or two paragraphs, and the feeling in them can be so different from where I am now. Thanks for the comment, Pat.

  3. I am not as organized as you, Susan, in terms of how I categorize "projects in the offing." There are so many, and beyond the ones that exist, are the many more possibilities. My dreams/schemes include the cookbook(s) I want to write, the pie shop I dream of opening (Pie R Round" is on thought... Especially if near the MIT or UA campus!), the bed & breakfast that beats all bed and breakfasts.... Dreams and schemes. Aren't they fun? Aren't they what keep us going?

  4. Some of my (unnamed) scheme include lots of trips to places I will probably never get to. All my life I've wanted to walk the Silk Road, but considering the political situation in that part of the world, I doubt I'll ever get there. Then there's the long walk . . . And yes, those are the things that keep us going. Thanks for commenting.