Easy Ideas

So, what should you write about? Let me suggest three techniques to get a story idea so quickly you won’t even realize it happened.
Borrowed Idea
In the two seasons of the TV series The White Lotus, a handful of ultra-rich folks spend time at a luxurious island resort (first in Hawaii, then in Sicily). Intriguing things happen, menace always rolling in with the waves.
Apparently the show’s creator, Mike White, was influenced by the 1970/80s TV series Fantasy Island, of which he was a big fan as a kid. It was a schlocky show, but it has a very similar premise to The White Lotus. And…I suspect the person that created Fantasy Island was a bit influenced by Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, which has an island setting and a magical fellow, Prospero, running the place in a manner similar to Fantasy Island’s white-suited Mr. Roarke (pictured above).
So, do your own riff on a story you like: comic book, fairy tale, opera, schlocky TV show, etc.
Short Idea
Instead of searching for that BIG idea, consider an idea that will lead you into a really short piece—fiction, essay… whatever. This is all the rage now in the literary world (flash fiction and nonfiction), pieces that run just a page or two.
Indeed, Gotham has a literary magazine devoted to these pieces—The Razor. Each month, we publish one fiction and one nonfiction story, with text, audio narration, and original artwork. For example….
M.M. Kelley’s “Cicada” – a short story showing the narrator’s fascination with cicadas.

Lucy McClellan’ s “Baggage” – a personal essay about the writer’s dislike of rolling suitcases.
Lindz McLeod’s “Cake by the Ocean”– a short story composed of the narrator’s memories of desserts eaten in various locales.
So, just come up with a very self-contained short idea, which will probably end up taking on layers you never expected.
Terrible Idea
Don’t worry about getting a great idea. Come up with a  terrible idea for a story. Takes all the pressure off.
Let’s say your partner chides you for never washing the dishes. Or you see a child throwing a tantrum. Or you spend a long day just playing a video game.
None of those sound like especially great story ideas. However, it all depends on what you do with it.
Jamil Jan Kochai’s short story “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: Phantom Pain” is about a teenager playing a video game all day long. But in a magical realism sort of way—he sees things from his family’s past in the game.
You know what’s a truly terrible idea? A hip hop musical about the US’s first Secretary of the Treasury who brilliantly set up a national banking system. His name, I believe, was Alexander Hamilton.

Alex Steele

Gotham President

Go For It, Folks

I remember receiving an application to teach from Julie Powell. The cover letter was polite but made no mention of any special achievements. I had to look closely at the resume to discern this wasn’t just Julie Powell; it was the Julie Powell.

You know, the Julie Powell who felt her life was stuck in a rut so she decided to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a single year, and blogged about it in the early aughts, creating one of the first blogs that lots of people paid attention to. From there, it became an acclaimed memoir, Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, and a movie, Julie & Julia, written and directed by Nora Ephron. She brought fine cooking down to earth for us, in much the same way Julia Child did when she brought French cuisine to this side of the Atlantic with her first cookbook.

If it were me, I’d put some of that in my cover letter. And I told her so when we interviewed her. She nodded politely, accepting my point. And she did get the job.

This is also the same Julie Powell who left this world recently at the age of 49. Last term, she begged off teaching a class because she wasn’t feeling well. I suspected she’d be back. Julie came and went at Gotham, but she always came back.

Despite her cover letter modesty, Julie wasn’t cutesy like the movie version of her, played by Amy Adams. (Weird seeing yourself played by someone in a movie, right?) She was much spikier. If you wanted to have a wickedly witty conversation, Julie was a perfect partner for it. At one point, she had a snake for a pet.

She cared about food, obviously. And not just the fancy stuff. I recall us arguing about which is better: Frito-Lay Cheetos (Julie’s corner) or the 365 Cheese Curls (my corner).

Here’s me reading a passage from her Julie & Julia.

Near the end of the book, Julie writes about Child:

I read her instructions for making béchamel sauce and what comes throbbing through is that here is a woman who has found her way.

Both Julie and Julia found their way by getting a bold (even crazy) idea, then going for broke with it. We should all do that a bit more, be it for a year-long project or a serendipitous Sunday. The pursuit of the idea is what counts. Success is secondary. Julie had no earthly idea that her big idea would bring her anything other than too-large grocery bills and some adventurous meals.

Try something interesting. See what happens.

Alex Steele

Gotham President

A Salute to Silliness

My best friend in first grade (hi, Robbie) and I were briefly forbidden from seeing each other after school because our mothers decided we were too silly together. They had a point. Soon as I showed up at Robbie’s house (or vice versa) we would collapse on the floor, giggling helplessly for no apparent reason.

I’m proud to say I’m still silly. You can see this on display in some of the Thursday videos I make for Gotham’s social media, and they got especially silly during the darkest days of the pandemic. Evidence here and here and here.

I’m in good company, I think. Monty Python specialized in silly, nowhere more apparent than their famous sketch about the Ministry of Silly Walks. Perhaps you have your own favorite masters of silliness. Anyone else here love Sally O’Malley?

So, what exactly is silly? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as: exhibiting or indicative of a lack of common sense or sound judgment. I’m sorry Merriam and Webster, but I dispute that definition. I’d say that silliness is about taking a break from reality, relishing the willy-nilly around us, and perhaps even laughing at the ever-ready sword of our inevitable death. The fools in Shakespeare’s plays are usually the wisest characters, are they not? 

And maybe a bit of silliness might help your writing. If you’re feeling uptight, overly judgmental, put on a goofy hat or do a dopey dance and you’re bound to enter with a lighter approach. Most stories could use a little levity too. Put a ridiculous obstacle in a character’s path or give someone a funny name.

(Funny names slay me, by the way. I can’t look at the picture above without snickering.)

Or just write something outrageously silly as a creative stretching exercise. I’m still laughing about something I read on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency about 15 years ago, by Tim Carvell. It was a “serious” essay pondering how various scenarios might have impacted the fame of Elvis Presley. Like so:

What if he—instead of Tennessee Williams—had written A Streetcar Named Desire, but he’d also been born with lobster-like claws for hands? Leave aside the question of how he would have written the play—for the sake of argument, let’s say he dictated it, or maybe had some sort of special typewriter. How he wrote the plays isn’t important. The question is, would he have been as widely adored? More so? Less so?

You’re free to bring your silliness to any Gotham class, but you might find it especially welcome in our Stand-Up Comedy Writing and Humor Writing courses. Maybe Robbie and I should sign up for these.

Alex Steele,

Gotham President