Writer’s Keys: Lying in Wait for a Raven, Step 1

Ideas are really such slippery things; as smooth as a raven, with sleek shining wings.

Harnessing That sort of a bird can be difficult, because there are fat, distracting, and overused pigeons idling in much easier reach. But there’s an art to catching what you really want, if you know where to look. Spontaneous though it may seem when coming from the Greats (Dickinson and Dickens and Hemingway and Hawthorne), lying in wait for a raven is purely technical and purely intentional, nine ravens out of ten.

By far the most important trick is to discredit the easily reachable birds. Given a prompt, most will take hold of the first pigeon they see, and admire its feathers, and give themselves a pat on the back for Originality and Cleverness. It is all too easy to fall into this trap, but when avoided it causes an exponential increase in true originality. Examine one such prompt:

A pair of unlikely friends.

The first idea one thinks up involves a popular, athletic sort of boy in middle or high school, and a quiet girl of the same age and a very different mien. You may have some slight variation on this standard, but it almost certainly stems from the same tree.

This is a pigeon, of the Fattest, Laziest, and Most Stereotypical Sort.

Ditch it.

As much as anyone dislikes the truth, we all live in the same world as everyone else, and the same country as a great number of people. With many of these we share a language, a lifestyle and an outlook on life; therefore, we have the same associations, the same cultural cliches, the same assets and setbacks. And we think up the same first ideas.

So the first step in catching a raven is to not catch the nearest pigeon, no matter how glossy its feathers appear to be, and no matter how well-fed and comfortable it seems. It has almost certainly been caught, caged, capacitated and coddled a thousand times before. You have to Let It Go.

Once your eyes are opened to the truth of what is really a desirable bird to catch, you can train yourself to find the rarer ones, those that hide in the undergrowth masquerading as pheasants or sparrows rather than sitting plumply on eye-level branches. Writing is reaching. Nine ravens out of ten.

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