How To Become a Factory of Story and Article Ideas

One of my Big Points in yesterday’s More On How to Make A Living Writing was, “If you’re not pretty much an idea factory, you’re never going to make it anyway.”

One of my more consistently perspicacious readers, “SamWrites2,” left a comment to that post.

“Hi, John!” he wrote. “You know, I’ve been thinking. I need you. I want to have your baby.”

No, wait, wait. Sorry. That wasn’t Sam. That was my Christian minister lesbian friend, Anita. What Sam said was: “Can you expand on your ‘idea factory’ idea? How does one become an idea factory without getting one’s ideas from someone else? Is there such a thing as an original idea? The reason I chose to work in journalism is because it was easier to look around, ask ‘Why?’, and then write about that, rather than try to pull something brand new out of my brain.”

Good question, Sam! Disgusting imagery—-but good question! Being an Idea Factory, is, after all, the key to being a successful writer, and no two ways about it. If you wait to get assigned  a story, you die waiting; if you come up with a good story of your own, though, you’re gold. From fiction to poetry to nonfiction, idea is king.

Let’s first consider whether or not there’s such a thing as an original idea. Of course there is; if there weren’t then today we’d still be trying to open up cans with our teeth. Luckily, in 1972 Barnabas “Big Collar” Canopener invented the gadget that still bears his name, and cosmetic dentists everywhere were forced to become tile layers and make-up artists.

No, but yes: There are definitely new and original ideas. The whole point of good ideas is that they’re new. They of course exist in symbiotic relationship with their contexts: the cuff link, for instance, was just stupid until someone finally invented the loose, oversized, hole-bearing man-cuff. I feel safe in saying that each and every one of our brains is veritably abuzz with new ideas just waiting to coalesce, spark to life, and then burst out in such a way as to embarrass us in public.

I don’t in reality know if it’s possible to teach people how to come up with good writing ideas. I think  it is, but I don’t know. I do know that in my years of trying to teach/impart that particular facility to freelance magazine writers, I invariably failed. I simply had a pretty much impossible time getting people to, as they say, “think outside the box.”

The reasons I personally have always had pretty good luck flopping around outside that stupid box are two: I’d rather burn alive for an hour than be bored for twelve seconds, and I in every last way loathe work.

Seriously: I think the two most important qualities a writer can have are an actual fear of boredom, and a deep and abiding drive to be lazy.

Here’s what I mean: One time when I was working as the managing editor of a monthly magazine, we got in a press release about how the performance season for this local circus troupe was about to begin.

“Why don’t you write a story about this local circus troupe?” my boss asked me.

“Why don’t you quit so I can have your job, you dribbling moron,” I replied. I’m kidding, of course. What I really did is storm into my office and slam shut my door.

Then my brain went like this: “Man, I love having my own office. I can’t believe I have to write a story about those stupid local circus performers. I do respect them, though; I can barely sit in a chair without toppling off it. Hmm. Lemme look at their press release.” Therein I learned that one of the circus’s featured performers was “Ivan, The World’s Strongest Man.”

“Hmmm,” I thought, staring at a photo of Ivan. “Must be weird being the world’s strongest man. Guy definitely needs to update his wardrobe. No one wears sleeveless leopard-print unitards anymore. How does he not know that? Then again, if you’re the world’s strongest man, making astute fashion statements probably isn’t your main concern in life. Your concern is that you keep breaking things. You try to open a door—and suddenly you’re holding a door. You go to apply your car brakes, and your foot goes through the floorboard. You scratch your head, and you almost bleed to death. It must be horrible being the world’s strongest man.”  

So then I contacted the guy who plays Ivan, and asked if he’d be down for doing an interview with me based on the idea that he actually is the strongest human male currently alive on the planet. He thought it was a great idea—and bingo, I had my piece. And that story was fun to write: I got to talk about how as a baby Ivan used a lawn mower for a rattler, and how as a schoolboy he had to use special steel pencils, and was not  fun to play with at recess, and how his dad had to run away from home from the shame of having a three-year-old son who could totally beat him up.

Point being: Writing that story didn’t bore me to death—and  I didn’t have to work, as I would have if I’d done the normal kind of story, where you have to take notes and get all the facts right and learn stuff. I hate learning stuff.

I’ll give one more example, if you don’t mind my writing yet another blog post longer than the Constitution. Once, when I was the editor of a weekly tabloid newspaper in downtown San Diego, I noticed the city had put up all around downtown these round signs with nothing but the letter “P” on them. They were about the size of STOP signs. I thought, “What the heck are those signs for?” But right away I sensed that finding out what they were really  for might involve actual research. So instead I simply went outside, stood underneath one of the signs, and when people walked by told them that I was a reporter doing a story on what people thought the “P” on these new signs stood for.

And that’s when people, yet again, started being the funniest thing since Charlie Chaplin.

“I think it stands for Padres,” said one guy seriously. (As in the San Diego Padres baseball team! Like the city would just put up signs everywhere showing the first letter of San Diego’s baseball team! Cracked. Me. Up.)

A portly chap guessed, “Pizza? That’d be cool. It is hard to find good pizza downtown.” A hippie girl mused with what I suspected was organically generated mellowness, “You know what? I think it stands for peace.” A wino-type guy said, “There’s a bathroom nearby?” I made a questioning face, and he goes, “You know. Pee?!”

That was about the best half hour of my life. I took a couple of Pictures of People Pondering the P—and just like that, I had half a page of usable material. (The sign, by the way, stands for “Parking.”)

One time one of my favorite writers—a guy named J. R. Griffin, for whom I used to freelance back when he was running a music rag in Los Angeles called “Mean Streets”—was interviewing a musician when he noticed the batteries on his tape recorder were running low. So part of his story became about how he didn’t stop the interview and say his batteries were low, because he was embarrassed about making such an amateur mistake and didn’t have extra batteries anyway. So in the profile itself, J.R. wrote things like, “When I asked him about how he writes his music, Bob said that when composing he liked to hurt his hubble, or hug his stubble, or something like that. I’m not sure.” Or he wrote, “And that’s when I’m pretty sure Bob said something about being inspired by his cat,” or, “‘I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a musician,’ I’m pretty sure Bob said.” 

I died. I still count it as one of the funniest thing I’ve ever read.

My point is: If you really want to be a creative idea machine, think lazy.

What I’m really saying, of course, is think about things not so much as what they’re supposed to be, but what they actually are, if that makes sense. It’s all  about pointed, ingenuous honesty. I really do think the secret to consistently producing quality creative ideas—whether it be for local, regional, or national magazine or newspaper work, or for fiction, or poetry, or play writing—is to never fail to be brutally, crazily, viciously, obsessively (and always politely) honest  about whatever it is you’re writing about. That’s it. Say what you see. Never force things to be what you or anyone else most typically wants or expects them to be. Let things and people tell you who and what they are: Let the real truth of whatever you’re considering unfold itself before you—and then just hang on, and see what happens.

Watch and ride: that’s my motto.

The other Truly Excellent Way to find as many great stories as you can possibly write is to go out into the world secure in the knowledge that people are absolutely fascinating: that they do fascinating things, have fascinating histories, are involved in fascinating dynamics. Move around in life assuming that everyone you meet is astoundingly original and infinitely interesting—and sure enough, their stories will never disappoint you.


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  • morningjoy

    I'm a budding writer. It embarrasses me to admit that, but then it is what it is. I retired from a real job because I wanted to write. Ideas bounce around in my head and I yearn for the time to sit down and develop them. When I do, it's laborious to pull out the right words and phrases, but it's something I'm compelled to do. I suppose it'll get easier. Thanks for being an inspiration.

  • Thanks John! I will keep this in mind when I am having a brain fart. Just so you know your ability to write makes me wish I could mind meld you sometimes. Whodda thunk lazy was the key to creativity. Heck, if I had known that i could have really put my early 20's to good use. Rest assured that from this point on I will channel my 21 year old self every time I sit to put fingers to keys.

    Thanks for the how to! And Thanks you to Sam for being so astute to ask in the first place!

  • Neon,

    We need to network! (sorry John) I've got a friend from college who finished a stint as one of Bill Gates' speechwriters and now works at a firm in NY. Just wanted to put you two in touch if he agrees.

    And could you put a blog out there, please? You could help a lot of people.


  • Morning: One main thing, I think, is to be REALLY clear on why, exactly, you want to write. Is it to fulfill your ow emotional or aesthetic needs–or is it because you want to make a LIVING writing. Either way, it shouldn’t be that hard. If it’s that hard to do, then it’s not coming naturally. If it’s not coming naturally it’s not likely to be any good anyway–and you’ll never do ENOUGH writing to make any kind of real go of it anyway.

    Think about why it’s so hard. Figure out what you need to do to RELAX into it, rather than keep hammering at yourself. It’s all about finding the flow that works for you personally, and then riding that.

  • Neon Java

    John, stop doing this, i.e., “I’ll give one more example, if you don’t mind my writing yet another blog post longer than the Constitution.”

    Your posts have yet to be as long as a decent-sized magazine article. If anything, they’re occasionally truncated before I am quite ready for last call.

    As for today’s topic, you allude to some issues but don’t go quite far enough in this post or its relatives — (1) having too many ideas and how to winnow the wheat from the chaff; (2) what if you can’t not write (oui, un negatif pas de deux).

    In my profession, I am the “voice” of innumerable politicos, bizfolk, scientists, and lesser celebrities and entertainers: I write their speeches, white papers, business plans, proposals, etc. Clients recommend me because “you captured my thoughts perfectly!” I excel at plumbing the depths of Mr. Smith’s ideas, personality, and style, then translating all his random bits and pieces into a whole that represents him genuinely, coherently, and persuasively. Mr. Smith then goes to Washington. Or back to his lab with a fat grant.

    I love my work. However, I also derive deep satisfaction from my own writing, which leans away from this objective, well-researched routine and toward the subjective and fanciful. Not quite fiction, not quite real world. End product: a grab-bag rife with ideas and I :::trade secret of great speechwriters about to be revealed!::: have to begin EVERY project, mine or my clients’, by literally addressing the intended audience, “Dear _______” to keep the correct “voice” in place. Hence, I can’t not write, I have too many ideas and so much material I feel wasteful of what isn’t used, and I have to look at the whiteboard in my office to remember who’s talking. :-0

    Okay, John, take it from there. I need more coffee. 😉

  • "Let’s first consider whether or not there’s such a thing as an original idea."

    An age-old debate, and you argue it well. I liked the examples you mentioned, but I wonder how much one might also consider them new executions of old stories. Because the other side of the argument is that there really aren't any new ideas, just new ways of telling them. Your story about your editor for Mean Streets vaguely reminded me of Gay Talese's classic "Sinatra Has a Cold" for Esquire.

    Also, for 'thinking outside the box' and more information on story, can I suggest a book I admire? Sid Stebel was my thesis advisor, and he wrote a book called "Double Your Creative Power"–it's a slim book, but it's packed with interesting discussion concerning story, ideas, and where they come from, and how they affect each other. Totally worth some exploring.

  • Neon Java

    Just back from coffee. from the look of the conversation so far, it might appear SamWrites2 and I went off into a corner for a natter about speechwriters and blogging and where in D.C. to find the best samosas. Untrue!

    Still hoping John O Pasha of Penguins will weigh in with his wit and wisdom. 😎

  • Weigh in about what, now? Did I miss something?

  • Neon Java

    I was hoping you might have some input on: "As for today’s topic, you allude to some issues but don’t go quite far enough in this post or its relatives — (1) having too many ideas and how to winnow the wheat from the chaff; (2) what if you can’t not write…."

    Those are my particular nemeses!

  • Oh. Well. Hmm. Are you saying that you're not sure you know how to tell bad or mediocre ideas from good ones, and that you write obsessively or compulsively?

  • Neon Java

    The compulsivity tag isn't too far off the mark! 🙂

    (1) I keep a "little black book", not unlike the spiraled notepads used by police detectives, to jot down ideas, threads of conversations, and facts to substantiate. Because of the w-i-d-e diversity of people I write for and "voices" I use, there are days when everything seems useful and pertinent. However, once I arrive at the discernment portion of the evenig and know what's a keeper and what isn't, I've yet to arrive at a gracious (?) and appropriate way of passing along the surplus. It's good stuff, it just isn't what I need. Someone else can have it, but whom and how?

    (2) A better way to couch this issue, perhaps: I'm not good at saying no to an ongoing client's need. "Can you write me something for _____ ?" (fill the blank with anything from blog to wedding speech to a grant application) Saying no to new prospects, no problem; but to the faithful fold, yeah, not so easy.

    Have at me!

  • I'm afraid I can't. I have no idea who in your life might want whatever of your collected stuff you don't. And of course the other question doesn't actually have anything to with writing, but rather with the details of how you run your particular enterprise. Sounds like you're doing great, though!

  • Wow, this is fantastic. Thnx for sharing your insights, I'm feeling the rumblings of inspiration surfacing.

  • Neon, John,

    (That sounds cool!) I would answer you specifically but would have to charge you both my consultants fee of $60 an hour.

    Please pay in small bills and don't expect a receipt.

    Otherwise, just for fun and if I really had it in for you, I'd say try one of those sites that pay for content – 10 cents a word (after editing, of course). This could lead to really, really messy writing, no byline (needed for clips) and many prepositions the likes of which many editors will not put.

    Professionally, I think those sites are a scam.

    If you know even a little how to market yourself and get a real writing gig you're better off trying to find a trade magazine. There's a paying gig out there for just about anything or anyone you can think of to write about.

    For the bits and pieces, work them up into a fictional short story. Those gigs are all over too (again, beware scams and vanity publishers).

    My first paid non-fiction story was about an artist who paints undersea murals on the bottoms of pools. I sold it to "Swimming Pool and Spa Dealer News" and was promptly promoted to "contributing editor."

    Sell your story at one of the thousands of trades like that listed in Writer's Market, on craigslist (under writing gigs but beware of scams) and even posted on college newspaper bulletin boards – where I found out about that first writing gig. College students are always desperate for clips and easily taken advantage of.

    I never was able to follow up with equally interesting ideas and was soon dropped from the masthead, hence my question to John and appreciation of his answer.

    By intuition I'd stumbled upon his last advice – "The other Truly Excellent Way to find as many great stories as you can possibly write is to go out into the world secure in the knowledge that people are absolutely fascinating."

    The world's strongest man, people on the street, a mural painter whose canvas is swimming pools, esteemed writer, humorist and educator John Shore – they're out there waiting for you to call or drop by for an interview.


  • I like this series. Please continue!

  • “Hi, John!” he wrote. ”You know, I’ve been thinking. I need you. I want to have your baby.”

    No, wait, wait. Sorry. That wasn’t Sam. That was Anita.

    If nothing else was to attest to your great skill at creative writing, this would stand alone as a priori evidence. Either that or wishful thinking.

    On a serious note, not to suggest the above wasn't, I always enjoy and learn from your writing on writing. I printed out the series on writing you did a couple months ago and have referred to it several times. The rest of the time it resides on a table in a gold-leaf frame surrounded by glowing candles and sweet-smelling incense.

  • Oh, my gosh. It's been a long time (if ever) that I've actually cracked up out loud–TWICE, in this case, no less–at something a commenter posted. You are TOO FUNNY!

    "Either that or wishful thinking." NO YOU DIDN'T!!!

  • vespagal

    Ok, then. I finally get it! *EUREKA MOMENT HERE*

    Friends are often telling me how they love how I am able to think outside of the box! AND on top of that, I knew there had to be a reason why I spaced the arrival of my kids out as I did… to avoid the 9 to5 thing for a whole 16 years (yea, baby!).

    When I was taking my basic college courses I avoided taking English 101 like the plague. I didn't think I could do it. The thought that putting words on paper was beyond my comfort zone. However, I must say, once I gave it a go, I did kick-butt in that class.

    Fast forward to the present. I have a genuine interest in writing and would love to get paid for my efforts someday; though I think I'm at the, "a writer… me?" stage. I think your blog helped me put it all together. I think I was just waiting for that cosmic force (you know the one, the little kick in the hiney God gives you when he wants to get you to do something). I THINK… I should just shut up and do it, then. THANKS for the kick!

  • nicholas haas

    Hello John,

    I really enjoyed reading some of the humor on your webpage.

    I am a musician and writer (poetry mostly) living in New Hampshire.

    I very much agreed with your comments on whether or not the writing comes naturally or not to someone. It SHOULD flow and naturally- the word smithing can always be worked out later, but the content is either there or it isnt.

    I am having a tough time trying to decide whether or not to self publish a story or to sell the idea to a writer….

    Do you have some experiences that may help me make a decision?

    Very Sincerely-


  • I don't know what you mean by "self-publish" a story, so I guess I can't help you with this question. But generally, I really don't know how you'd sell an idea for a story. I've never heard of that, to be honest. Thanks for all you've said here, though. I appreciate all your kind, insightful affirmations.

  • Hi John, I haven't visited your site for awhile – I like the new look. This was a very entertaining and educational post. I totally loved your whole "worlds strongest man" bit. I think you should consider changing your career to Stand-Up Comedian.

  • Hi, Mormon! I'm glad you're back! Stand-up comedian, 'eh? Hmm. That does sound fun. Except … I'd have to actually stand, right? So that might not work for me. I'm pretty lazy. Do they have, like … sit down comedians? Because I really think that might be something I could get into.