The Road Not Taken

The Road Not Taken

Of the many predictable questions writers are asked (what time of day do you write being perhaps the most common) one that asks for a real response is: where do you get your ideas?

Some teachers have advised me that I should sit down every day and write whatever comes into my head for twenty or thirty minutes. Invariably, they have said, I will find the kernel of a new story buried somewhere in the product of this exercise. But it has never worked for me. I want to start with an idea and then write for twenty or thirty minutes, not the other way around.

For my first novel, Brothers, I tried a technique that I’ve used subsequently. Looking back over my life experience, I tried to put my finger on an important moment when I had a clear choice, and ended up going one way rather than the other. In each case, I took a close look at “the road not taken” to see if it offered the possibility for telling a unique and dramatic story.

In Brothers, I looked at an event in my early 20s when I lived in Japan and fell in love with a gorgeous Japanese woman. I was determined that I would go back, that the two of us would get married and live happily, etc. Though I did go back to Japan, I was never able to find the woman. We had written to each other, but the contact dried up after a few months, and I accepted the reality that the affair was over.

When I was first looking for story ideas, I asked myself, what if I had gone back and found the woman; what if we had been just as much in love and decided to marry; what if her father had objected but we had married anyway; what if I had gone back to the United States, planning to have her join me in a few months, and then learned that she was pregnant?

And there was Brothers! I found the idea by following “the road not taken.” I am not a research-driven novelist, but an imagination-driven one. I look for times in my life when I can say to myself, “What if I had done this and not that?” It sounds simplistic, but I feel certain that when applied to the circumstances of any writer’s life, it will (almost) always produce original, distinctive story ideas that no one else could have discovered or developed.