The Compost Heap

The Compost Heap

In his MasterClass on Storytelling, Neil Gaiman advocates keeping a writer’s notebook where you jot down little snippets of ideas that inspire you to use later in your writing. He calls these notebooks The Compost Heap. The idea is to take that scrap of an idea, and toss it into a place where first of all it can be remembered, but more importantly, where it can crumble and break down and mingle into the seed of a story.

Once I got past the image of Marjory the Trash Heap of Fraggle Rock fame, I realized that I’ve been doing this ever since I could pick up a pencil and compose a sentence. I’ve kept it all too. Trouble is, these thoughts are scattered hither and yon in boxes, and notebooks, and journals, and writing assignments, on the backs of other writing, and in various places online. It’s going to take a concerted effort to gather these beautiful rotting bits of story fodder, but in the past couple of weeks, I’ve been inspired to do just that.

Yesterday for instance. I listened to Guy Kawasaki’s podcast Remarkable People, where he had a conversation with Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas about their book Humor, Seriously: Why Humor is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life. It wasn’t so much the wisdom in their book that I took away (although there is ALOT of that!) it was two side-conversations they had, one, about the chemistry of what’s funny, and  the other, a way to remember or to pronounce someone’s name. The name trick is clever, and you can listen to the podcast if you want more. But the chemistry of what’s funny really rang true for me.

Briefly, Naomi revealed that something funny is no more than a truth that others can relate to, with an unexpected twist at the end. So even briefly-er, my compost heap entry for that is “Zig… ham sandwich.” Again, if you listen to the podcast, you’ll get it.

In addition to the podcast, later that evening, Kimi, a girlfriend I’ve known since we were 14, texted me. Although we grew up on the same street, and lived parallel lives over the ensuing 50 years, we are as different as night and day (even moreso in these politically divisive times… ah, I digress…) But we have stayed friends. In her text, Kimi said that after a hard and hectic day at work, she wanted nothing more than to ‘Netflix and Chill’ and in doing so, found a series that sounded like something we’d both enjoy. It’s about two women who’ve known each other since they were 14, and grew up on the same street, but are as different as can be, and yet have stayed friends… what’s not to like? I commented that I could tell already I would have the familiar “I wish I’d written that” feeling.

I had nothing else to do, and Dave had already gone to bed, so I dove into Firefly Lane.

Briefly, after 4 episodes, I did not wish I’d written that. But in its own way, it inspired me, because I know I could write something infinitely better. I love the premise, and in seeing it made into a series, I learned that it is marketable. Marketable in the way that Hallmark Christmas movies are marketable – great premise, inhabited by shallow and one-dimensional characters. But there it was, another scrap to throw onto the compost heap. ‘Firefly Lane – Avenida Ganso’ is my entry for that idea.

It all came together this morning as it usually does in my morning conversations with Downtown Dad. I told him about the podcast, the humor chemistry, and the Netflix series. He reminded me of the book his childhood friend had published about their Iowa neighborhood in the late sixties. And then, he gave me some advice – he said I should take that scrap of an idea, and toss it into a place where first of all it can be remembered, but more importantly, where it can crumble and break down and mingle into the seed of a story.

He’s very wise that one.


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