THE TROUBLE WITH FOLLOW-THROUGH
Ideas can be easy. Some people say that a person has to “flex” his or her idea muscle in order to prevent atrophy—in order to ensure access to great mental schemes—but if that’s true then I must be a freak of nature, because even when I’m not working out my idea muscle, it’s still bulging, twitching, and flexing—getting bigger even as I do little to encourage it. I have ideas even when I’m trying not to have ideas. I have ideas even when I’m trying to relax. I have ideas even when I’m trying to sleep. Sometimes, the ideas appear in my dreams.
Like the other night, as I slept I literally dreamt up a killer idea for a novelty snack that all of America would be able to enjoy around the campfire. But this idea—this revolutionary food product—wouldn’t be a novelty for too long, really. Once properly developed and marketed—once readily accessible to the American public—it would quickly become a part of everyone’s shared summer context in America. This idea would be a novelty only like pizza was once a novelty, or like cell phones were once a novelty. That is to say, once most of America could afford access to this idea (and they would quickly be able to, because a six-serving package of this idea would cost about the same as a twelve-pack of soda), it would be a part of everyday life. People wouldn’t really remember a time when they didn’t use this idea.
During my inspirational slumber the other night, this pioneering snack idea was revealed to me by a celestial muse who dropped by in the form of a lady I worked with in an office years ago. Now this lady, Annabelle (not her real name), isn’t the first person you’d think of when conjuring up images of summer fun in America. Annabelle was a teetotaler, a killjoy, a prude: someone too afraid of heavy laughter and unwed pregnancy to slip seamlessly into the wet, hot Americana dream that is June through August in the States. But luckily, my dream—and this profound food product—had less to do with the last great party before we all head to college kind of summer scene and more to do with the nonalcoholic, swearless kind of family fun that is properly contained around a properly contained campfire.
No, Annabelle might not have known much about the dankest beer, the headiest joints, or the crunchiest new jam music, but she appreciated a good dessert and how it can make or break a summertime event. In fact, things like a good Schaum Torte were often what she seemed to remember most about gatherings, more so than the people or conversations that were present. In the course of office chatter, she would often imagine a host’s menu for weeks or maybe months preceding an event, and then she would dissect it endlessly and pretty ruthlessly afterwards—and sometimes judge a host accordingly (but not to worry, if your dessert was good, you were usually safe with her).
Anyway, there Annabelle was in my summertime dream—probably dressed like a Mennonite damsel in the thick of winter—and she was demonstrating to me the newest, most novel piece of tasty campfire fun I’d ever seen: the S’MORES SHELL (working title, kind of copyrighted).
What exactly is a S’mores Shell? you ask. Well, I’ll tell you here and now: it’s a pretzel (or graham cracker) “container” that is coated with chocolate on the inside and meant to fit around a single marshmallow; it is pretty much the same size as a single marshmallow. In short, it’s the perfect, never-before-seen vehicle for making a single-serving, self-contained s’mores dessert over the campfire with minimal mess.
In this S’mores Shell dream, I found myself embarked on an outdoor adventure meant to somehow raise scholastic funds for Annabelle’s teenage daughter and her friends . . . or something like that. I couldn’t really discern exactly where or why we were camping—or the precise size and makeup of the camping group—but I knew this: the future had just been revealed to me.
What Annabelle demonstrated in my dream was magic. She just slid a marshmallow into a small, rectangular opening in the side of this Smore’s Shell (or the marshamellow was inserted by removing and then reattaching the bottom of the shell, dreams can be vague about such mechanisms), and then she fastened the shell to a roasting stick by means of a tiny hole or divot in the floor of the shell. Even as I was dreaming, I think I was aware that in the future the stick used here would probably be a designer, chrome-plated steel accessory trademarked and sold alongside the S’mores Shells, but on Annabelle’s fairyland camping trip, any reasonably sturdy branch from the forest floor worked just fine.
When Annabelle placed the now-stuffed S’mores Shell over an open campfire, the marshmallow inside melted along with the interior chocolate coating while the exterior just got nice and toasted. It was all so tidy and so mind-bending. There was no messy, drippy, sticky exposed marshmallow to actually handle, and there was no chance of that marshmallow falling off into the fire again and again and causing adults to curse in front of the kids, time and time again.
There was also no longer a need for anyone to lug around bulky bars of chocolate that later need to be rewrapped after only a small corner of their capacities have been utilized. Such chocolate is problematic for people for a couple of reasons. First, even if fitness-minded campers are on a diet, they usually end up eating such “leftover” chocolate before the tent is even packed up so that nothing “goes to waste.” In another scenario, conservation-minded people stash the remaining chocolate in a camper cabinet that doesn’t get opened until the following summer; then they toss the candy bar into the fire the next year after one taste of the aged Hershey’s bar proves to be a bad idea. Either way, there would be no more cocoa conundrums in this new age of campfire snacking: my product had just the right amount of chocolate already included with each serving.
The S’mores Shell solved so many problems and presented so many possibilities.
Now, do you understand the enormity of what has just been revealed to you? It’s fun for the whole family. It’s a new snacking horizon that will expand people’s worlds and raise their consciousness. The S’mores Shell idea is exciting and revolutionary.
But it might also already exist … or it might not function as flawlessly in reality as it did in my dream.
Herein lies the problem with having great ideas: the follow-through. I’m probably not going to take the time to actually research if this S’mores Shell does or doesn’t already exist in some form; and, even if it doesn’t yet exist, I’m probably not going to spend day and night in my home office finding ways to develop, manufacture, package, distribute and advertise this thing (although, if someone else reading this does take the time to do any of these things after the published date of this post, I will take the time to pursue some sort of intellectual copyright claim in order to collect at least fifteen percent of gross sales in perpetuity … if that’s legally viable). Because if I took the time to develop my S’mores Shell idea, or if I poured my heart and soul into the “delivery gas station” concept that I think could reshape college towns in America, or if I spent a couple of months developing the nonvoter registry project I envision as an accurate means to finally count all the disillusioned people who intentionally don’t vote nowadays, then I would never finish any of my writing.
I’m currently working on the philosophy that any finished project is better than a hundred partially developed masterpieces. Or that one finished masterpiece is better than a dozen projects engaged and left half-finished for the sake of being prolific. You get the idea: coming up with the ideas isn’t really the problem.
Ideas are easy. I have some good ideas for YouTube music channels that I could develop using my own acoustic guitar and my Yamaha Portable Grand piano. I wouldn’t mind freelancing some song lyrics, putting together a knockout stand-up comedy routine to sell to the highest bidder, or starting a website exposing all 2016 political candidate as tools of a broken system (even the gentle Ben Carson. Sorry, sir, I like you a little, and you do have gifted hands, but I don’t even want those hands reaching into my pockets and being given the power to wave the world's largest military into actions that just protect corporate interests. It’s not you, it’s the system, and you can’t get to the top of it without being a part of the problem).
I also have ideas for a memoir, ideas for an advice books that could be gifted to recent college graduates, ideas for a weight-loss/fitness/nutrition book geared towards writers, and ideas for developing theories demonstrating how cell phones and social media have doomed the psychological and emotional development of America’s children.
Plus, I wouldn’t mind turning at least one of my short stories into a full novel.
I’m exhausted just thinking about all of these ideas, and I’d just like to take a nap now … or read a book, or watch a movie, or sit mindlessly on the deck with a cold beer.
Coming up with ideas seems to be the easy part. It is the defining, refining, and developing of one’s ideas that are the hard parts. Those things take time and decision-making. Follow-through is the hard part: it takes a level of practicality and discipline that isn’t all that glamourous or really even all that fun.
Deciding where to put The End on a story or project can be the hard part.
My all-time favorite novel is Wonderboys by Michael Chabon. I’ve always identified intensely with the book’s main character, a creative writing professor and successful author by the name of Grady Tripp. I haven’t yet been a successful author like Grady, but I have gotten hopelessly lost in uncompleted ideas, just like he did.
In Wonderboys, Grady Tripp is a man trying to hammer out a follow-up to his wildly successful third novel (an approximation of the scenario I believe Chabon found himself in the midst of while writing the book). Luckily, Grady has got a masterpiece in the works. He’s got great characters and headline-grabbing plot scenarios for this follow-up book. Unfortunately, he’s got so much material that he’s confused and overwhelmed by it all. He’s totally scatterbrained and unorganized. Grady has been working on his follow-up book for several long years, and as Wonderboys opens, his “book” sits at 2,611 pages.
Some writers writhe and wring their hands while lamenting the presence of the nebulous enemy “writer’s block,” but Grady Tripp doesn’t believe in it. His problem isn’t not having enough ideas, but having too many. His problem is getting perpetually tangled in new starts and promising add-ons. As Grady works on his masterpiece, he excitedly jots notes and revises outlines regarding the plethora of characters and plots winding out from the nucleus of his follow-up book idea. But alas, he gets perplexed, exhausted, and frustrated. He’s never able to finish the masterpiece. He just types and types, endlessly adding to a gargantuan pile of ideas that gather dust in his desk drawer.
I can relate to some extent.
When I was in my early- to mid-twenties, I finished a lengthy second draft of an involved novel criticizing the parasitic tendencies running through some successful brands of journalism. The book focused on the precious mentor/mentee relationship that developed between a graduating journalism student and his kindly journalism-ethics professor (who had always been a staunch critic of popular media but had recently, paradoxically, become somewhat of a media darling due to his recent bestseller deriding journalism for using and abusing people for profit). As the book goes along, the young student is made aware of a long-hidden skeleton in his professor’s closet, and the boy has to choose between guarding that secret and selling it for enough money to pay off his parents’ underwater mortgage (his family’s financial woes have been weighing on him heavily throughout the book).
My novel was pretty ambitious. The characters marched purposefully and passionately up and down the steps of cleverly renamed buildings on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (my alma mater). They went down to Tijuana, Mexico and out to Coronado, California. In addition to examining questions of journalistic integrity, my book examined young love and a young man’s struggle to balance professional ambition with personal character. There were also subplots sprinkled throughout, such as the tale of an aging professor who becomes fatigued caring for his quadriplegic wife, and eventually becomes scandalized for seeking companionship from a female student who brings missing energy back to his life.
Ultimately, I become too exhausted to follow through with the necessary final edits on the book. After a second draft was finished, it looked like there might have to be a third draft. Where would the changes end? I could tinker endlessly. I felt lost in those ideas and couldn’t see a clear tunnel out of the murkiness.
And then there was the process of getting an agent. I had submitted a book synopsis to a single location (a “contest” to get an agent) that showed no interest, and then I got busy with a new fulltime job and a new fulltime marriage. Sometimes, aspects of "real life" can complicate the development of our best ideas.
I tucked the project away in a box. I didn’t have the stomach to tackle the submission, rejection, edit, submission, rejection, rejection process every night after work.
The ideas were easy. But there was so much more.
When I was younger, I thought that good ideas were all it took to be successful. I hadn’t anticipated the pain of follow-through. The follow-through can be exhausting. Organizing, intelligently tweaking, and figuring how to finish ideas can be the hard part. Following something through to its true completion can seem like the impossible part.
Someday I might resurrect that first manuscript of mine (working title Headlines and Homecomings) to see if I can finally introduce to the world those characters that have haunted me for fifteen years. But I’ve had many more ideas since then, and some of those ideas need my attention and follow-through right now.
A person can’t be promiscuous with ideas. We have to devote ourselves to a few choice ones. For writers, great story ideas present themselves most every day. A lot of the times, these ideas even come with a pretty well-defined character or two and maybe a ready-made title. But turning a great title, a one-line synopsis, and a flashy character into a story—complete with dialogue, a sensible plot, a defined ending, and a whole lot of revisions and copy edits—is another story. There just isn’t the time or energy to do it all for every idea.
Besides, sometimes even the greatest title idea falls flat when confronted by the reality of being turned into a complete product.
One morning a few months back, while hyped up on who knows how many cups of coffee at a local café, my dad got very excited about an idea that had just come to him while in the bathroom (I’m sure that a lot of men can relate to this lightning bolt in the john experience).
“I just had the greatest idea,” my dad said after getting out of the restroom. “I had the greatest idea for a new drink that they could serve at coffee shops.”
“What is it?” I asked, a little on the edge of my seat but mostly cautious because I needed to hear more before declaring his idea the greatest.
“It’s called the Latte’da,” my dad said. And then he smiled, breathless, waiting for the reaction from my mom and me. He was clearly impressed by his own genius.
“That’s catchy,” I admitted. “What is it, exactly?”
“Well I don’t know what it is exactly. But isn’t that a great idea? The Latte’da. Like la-di-da, but coffee-related. It would be the name for some kind of drink.”
I had to admit, the name was kind of melodic. But alas, it was a title and not much more.
Needless to say, I haven’t heard anything further about the development of the Latte’da since that morning at the coffee shop (although, if someone reading this develops a beverage by that name and if that development clearly comes after the published date of this post, I am hereby claiming, for my family, for my father, fifteen percent of gross sales in perpetuity … if that’s legally viable).
Developing ideas can be daunting and difficult. But it isn’t just the hard work and discipline required—the possibly wasted time and the maybe irretrievable energy—that can be obstacles when it comes to turning great ideas into something more. There is another problem with following something through to completion, and it’s probably the thorniest part of the whole “great idea” equation: it’s called rejection—sometimes known as failure—and it can only happen when you try to turn your dreams into reality. It’s not fun knowing that the story—or snack-product idea or restaurant prospectus—that produced heavenly choruses in your head might actually be met by nothing more than the sound of crickets or worse from the rest of the world. I think, for writers at least, this is usually the hardest part.
Trying to translate ideas into reality is the part where a person can get absolutely crushed. It’s the part where the outside world can turn enthusiasm into depression. Putting together notes and first drafts can be fun, piecing together an edited final project can turn a person crazy, and suffering through too many rejections can mortally wound even the sturdiest among us. It is never easy to reach The End on a project, and once there, actually signing off on those two words always has frightening implications.
That’s why blog pieces and personal essays are nice. You can kind of just end them wherever, and nothing really seems out of place. And there is always another one next week.