What’s the Big (or Little) Idea?
At the time my first book, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, was published in 2007, I was an architect. Since then, with the creation of the 101 Things I Learned series, I’ve spent the greater proportion of my time as a writer. But with limited formal training in writing, I’ve had to look to my architectural training for insights into my new profession.
In planning the workshop I will be teaching this month with Ethan Gilsdorf (“What’s the Big—or Little—Idea?” Friday 1:30-4:30PM), I found myself looking back at a hard-earned lesson from architecture school. In my second year of study, my classmates and I were asked to design a bookstore. In those days, bookstores didn’t sell coffee, scones, toys, and all the other things they now sell instead of books, so the assignment seemed pretty simple. All we needed to accommodate were a lot of bookshelves, a checkout, and some supporting spaces. The site looked to be a breeze, too: the bookstore was to be a freestanding building in a sea of asphalt in the suburbs—the “Great American Strip,” as our instructor called it.
I sat down at my drawing table and started working. I drew a large rectangle and filled most of it with bookshelves. I placed a cash register in a corner near the front door. Or maybe the register should be over there, and the door over here… I wasn’t sure. In a back corner, I tucked an office and a storage room, although maybe they would work better in the other corner. It was hard to say. Next, I…
This clearly wasn’t going to work. I could already hear the vacant buzz of the fluorescent lights over the neat, parallel rows of books I had drawn. This store didn’t sell books; it sold ennui.
Having endured some rough reviews on my previous projects, I sensed the problem: my project lacked an idea. But what to do? Here I was, trying to design a bookstore on the Great American Strip, and there was nothing in the assignment that compelled or inspired anything. All I had to work with were books, books, and more books. I was stuck.
When the weekend arrived, I paced my apartment, looking for a way out of my stuckness. I remembered something I had heard someone say once: a good design solution is an eloquent restatement of the problem. I wasn’t sure what this meant, but I had nothing else to latch onto. So I spent Saturday restating the problem: I needed to design a bookstore on the Great American Strip. Sunday, more of the same: I needed to design a bookstore on the Great American Strip. Monday… on and on I went. The project was due Wednesday; by Tuesday I was in a full-blown panic. I needed to design a bookstore on the Great American Strip, and I had nothing.
Then, out of nowhere, clarity: I needed to design a bookstore on the Great American Strip. How obvious!
What occurred to me in that moment is that, in placing a bookstore in a landscape of transmission shops, drive-through restaurants, and adult clubs, I was inserting something of intellectual and cultural value into an intellectual and cultural wasteland. The architecture of the bookstore needed to embody this. And so, amidst all the architectural “ducks” of the suburban strip—the Chinese restaurant with a pagoda-like roof, the strip joint with the blinking naked woman, and the Leaning Tower of Pizza—I envisioned my own duck: a classical building that announced, “culture within.” Nothing too serious, but not too jokey either. Perhaps an interpretation of a Renaissance tempietto—an octagonal building with a central dome. I put a few lines on the page, and then a few more, and I nudged things this way and that. Before long, the building was designing itself. A central reading room appeared under the dome, with light filtering through clerestory windows. A columned portico provided a transition from the parking lot. Shelves and nooks and crannies filled the facets of the octagon. Places emerged for customers to browse and hang out. There were places to sit on the floor. Places to open a large art book. Places to take it all in.
I turned a corner as a designer that day. Little of creative value can happen, I realized, if you don’t have a specific idea to drive and unify your efforts.
The same is true in literary endeavor. If you are writing a memoir about all the interesting things you’ve done in your life, you don’t yet have an idea. You’re doing the autobiographical equivalent of lining up bookshelves under fluorescent lights. But if, say, you are writing a memoir about your geek childhood interspersed with a journalistic investigation into geek culture, I’d say you have a real idea. The same is the case for cookbooks, humor books, do-it-yourself books, travelogues, and everything else. A book has to have a unique, informing idea. It needs a specific lens. It needs boundaries. It needs something that tells the writer, and ultimately, the reader, what it is about and what it is not about.
So what do you do if you don’t have a Big Idea? Are there ways to make a so-so idea into a Big Idea? Can you take the many small ideas swimming through your head and fit them under the umbrella of one Big Idea? Are you willing to let go of some of your ideas to find better ones? Can you narrow the ambition to write about everything into something more specific and focused? And now that I phased it that way, should one really be after a Big Idea or a small idea?
I hope you will join me and the Geekster-in-Chief, Ethan Gilsdorf (Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks), for “What’s the Big—or Little—Idea?” at the South Carolina Writer’ Conference. We’ll help you explore lots of Big Ideas for your book project. Or small ideas. Frankly, we’re not really sure which is which.