Not quite tall enough to ride this ride

How many of you have That Idea — a story, or piece of art, or music, or whatever — that you know you’re not quite good enough to pull off yet?

Last night I finally said to someone outside my skull that I have one of those. The earliest roots of it, I realized, go farther back than I thought; all the way to high school, in fact. I really wasn’t tall enough to ride that ride at the time, and so the concept never went anywhere other than swimming around in my brain and me jotting down, over a period of years, quotations to feed it in my brain. More recently I’ve taken a semi-stab at it, in totally different form, and the semi-stab isn’t bad, but I don’t think it’s quite what I want it to be. I could try again, but I have that fallow feeling, the one where I need to just let this live in the back of my brain and quietly accumulate some more quotations and thoughts and stories that will nibble around the edges of the idea without trying to swallow it whole, not just yet.

I’m not quite tall enough to ride this ride. Which can sometimes be a dangerous thought to accept, because the way we grow taller for this sort of thing is by doing; if you tell yourself “oh, I’m not good enough for that yet,” you may never get good enough. Sometimes it’s better to try anyway. But — depending on your own personal brain installation — it may be the case that trying and failing with that particular idea means the seed is now dead; you’ve used it up and gotten not nearly enough for your efforts. I’m hoping I haven’t done that with the aforementioned semi-stab. Over the years I’ve gotten a lot better at meaningfully reshaping a story in revision, and I’ve had at least a couple of short fiction instances of me taking a new run at an idea that fell flat the first time, so there’s reason to think I might be able to try this one again. For other people, though, the risk is real. In which case you have to trust yourself to figure out which seeds should be left to germinate for longer and which ones can be used as fodder for growth.

Yes, I know I’m talking vaguely around the actual thing in question. That’s because I have hangups about discussing nascent ideas in public. But if others among you have your own instances of this kind of thing, it would be pleasing to know I’m not alone.

8 Responses to “Not quite tall enough to ride this ride”

  1. Ruth Simon

    Oh yes, I have ideas for projects that I don’t think I’m ready to tackle at this stage of my writing career.

    And, I have killed more than one project by tinkering with them before I had developed the skills needed to write them.

    So far, I haven’t successfully resuscitated an idea that I tried writing too soon. I have one project in particular that I hope can be revived. I haven’t tried it yet because I’m still leery of not being ready for it.

    I also share your hesitance to discuss projects before a first draft is completed. For the first novel I ever attempted to write, I was in a months-long writing certificate where we shared chapters of our projects with classmates and gave one another feedback and suggestions.

    The feedback was valuable as a new writer. But I found that talking about all of my ideas for where the story would or could go eventually drained it of any energy. I took it through a few revisions, which was useful. But, the project was DOA after that.

    Since then, I’ve killed two really intriguing short story ideas by talking about them before I’d finished drafting them. Now, I recognize that I need to keep my thoughts to myself until I feel the piece is nearly complete or has proven that it’s not going anywhere. Otherwise, discussing possible directions for it will kill the story.

    That makes sharing WIPs with trusted writing partners tricky, but I have to balance the tradeoffs of getting helpful insights with keeping the project energized.

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    • swantower

      Yep — it’s all about figuring out where the balance point is for you, and accepting that you may need to experiment (with the consequences that brings) before you find it.

      Good luck!

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  2. Mike Reeves-McMillan

    At the moment, I don’t feel like I have instances of anything other than this. I am probably going to have to try to write them anyway.

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    • swantower

      Alas, we cannot actually save all our awesome ideas for when we’re good enough to do them right; that’s just a guaranteed way of making sure you never do become good enough for them.

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  3. Nick Maclaren

    It doesn’t just happen in your area. I have had several potentially impactful ideas in the theory of computing, and have got far enough to know that I am not enough of a mathematician to take them further. Yes, I tried, and I could prove some minor results, but not enough to be worth publishing, except by someone in a publish-or-die job.

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    • swantower

      Interesting! I’ll admit to having minimal enough knowledge of both mathematics and computing (in any sense other than the user-end one) to not even really know what that looks like, but I’ve heard people talk in similar terms before.

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  4. Diatryma

    I’ve definitely done this– most dramatically, I outlined a huge novel project during a high school standardized test week, filling in about two inches of index cards with What Happened et cetera. I’ve also let stories rest for a while. In one case, I’d have to be Connie Willis to pull it off (and letting it sit was for the best, as I have realized it’s transphobic and possibly racist) and in others, the idea just felt… bigger than me. Not tall enough is the right metaphor.

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    • swantower

      We do genuinely grow by trying. Midnight Never Come felt like I was wrestling a very large and strong octopus, compared to what I’d written before; it ate all my brain and then asked for more. Now? Now that book wouldn’t intimidate me at all. But I got to where I am by writing it, at a time when it was just a tiny bit past the edges of my capabilities.

      Amen, though, to some ideas benefiting from being allowed to sit long enough for us to notice the problems with them. I was thinking the other day that I’m really glad I never sold a certain short story.

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