My longtime friend and colleague Dave Barr and I were discussing various topics over a pub lunch this week and one topic that came up was ‘where do ideas for writing come from?’ For both of us the answer was the same. You, as writer, put yourself in a receptive frame of mind, rather like a meditation, and soon ideas come floating in like butterflies.
Put another way, you can write about anything if you’re receptive to the material. The same is true for photography — you can take a picture of anything if you tune in to the possibilities.
Dave illustrated the point with a story he told me about marmalade — how a chance encounter with homemade marmalade put him in a mind to research the topic and discover where it originated and how it was different then than now. And how different homemade marmalade tastes compared to commercial varieties. I’ll say no more than that because Dave may publish something on the topic, which I hope he does.
One of the joys of being an essay writer is that you can pursue any topic that catches your fancy. If you’re a good enough writer, you can make that topic interesting enough to catch an editor’s fancy too — meaning that it would be interesting to a broad audience of readers. Essay writing can also be personal. I think many of us who write short essays in blog form write mainly for ourselves. We write to discover something we didn’t know or had never thought of in that particular way. I’m among those who can say ‘I don’t know what I think or feel about something until I’ve written about it.’
A few freelancers I’ve met who make their living from writing have finely honed their receptivity to ideas. Paul Lima, a Toronto freelance writer who offers excellent workshops on how to be a freelancer, tells of how when he first got a dog and began walking it in the park and meeting other dog owners, he realized there was an entire subculture of dog owners out there. His interest in the topic led him to do some research and interviews and soon he had a published story on dog owners.
It’s 8:30am and I’m sitting in Starbucks in a window seat. Outside as I type this I see a group of runners across the street outside the Running Room. It’s cold, about -20C with the wind chill factor, and they’re all wearing hats and warm outer wear. Some are wearing black, others dress in bright blue and red. Two of the runners wear coats of phosphorescent green. They’re all wearing running shoes. There they go, in mostly single file down the sidewalk. They’ve split into three groups, each heading in a different direction. Most look at their wrists as they set out, probably to check their watches or to set a timer.
After their run many of them will descend into Starbucks, forming a loud, boisterous group. They’re pumped full of endorphins and camaraderie. I rather enjoy it when they arrive, though it makes writing difficult. I know there’s a story there, probably many, if I were to pursue it.
Adjacent to the Running Room is a place called Tanned Bodies, certainly a place that elicits ideas both about the type of people who use tanning parlours as well as the health risks of tanning. Across the parking lane for both is a breakfast chain called Sunset Grill featuring its ‘famous all day breakfast’. Except that it’s never open at sunset. I opens early in the morning and shuts down about mid afternoon. So how did it get its name?
Across the street from Sunset Grill is a totem pole in a small park beside the river, honouring the Mississauga Indians who once lived here. I read that the strip one mile on either side of the Credit River was once reserve land and that there was a trading post near where I’m currently sitting. The Mississaugans would come to the trading post to trade furs, fish, and whatnot for credit, which is how the Credit River got its name. Lots of material here for a writer interested in the past. Also, is a totem pole an appropriate way to honour the Mississauga tribes? I thought totem poles were part of the culture of Pacific Northwest peoples, not those of the Eastern Woodlands.
In that short span of vision from my window seat lie all kinds of stories that can be told, or re-told, with a new slant. If you view it receptively, in the words of Terry Pratchett, ‘the world’s your mollusc.’