25 Women to Read Before You Die

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Original Essays

Ideas for Sale

by Carolyn Parkhurst
  1. The Dogs of Babel
    $5.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

    The Dogs of Babel

    Carolyn Parkhurst
    "Carolyn Parkhurst's The Dogs of Babel — so luminous, heartbreaking, comic, and daring — is an astonishing debut. Parkhurst writes of love and loss, and, above all, of what we can and cannot know of one another, with power and deeply earned grace." Richard McCann, author of Ghost Letters

I like to carry a small notepad with me in my purse to write down ideas as they come to me. It makes me feel like a more productive writer than I am ? why look at me, here I am in the middle of the supermarket, jotting down notes for my next novel! I can't wait till I get home; the ideas are flowing now! You there, trying to push past me to get to the baby carrots, fear my power ? I am an artiste!

This doesn't always pan out. Sometimes I write down a word or a phrase that seems, for one gleaming moment, to be full of promise, but that sounds uninspired or even cryptic the next time I come across it. One note I found recently said only "roller coaster design." And underneath, "the span of a human life." I know what you're thinking — pure gold, right? I can see you adopting the pose of a French chef, making a circle out of your thumb and fingers and kissing them exuberantly, crying out, "Magnifique!" so loudly that those around you jump. But I have no use for these ideas. Try as I might, I can think of nothing to do with them.

My point, and I use the term loosely, is that every writer has ideas that don't come to fruition, ideas for novels, short stories, articles, screenplays that just never seem to get written. You'd be hard-pressed to find a writer who doesn't have slips of paper scattered around his or her desk, scrawled with the ghosts of ideas. There's no shortage of ideas in the world. The trick is in finding the right one.

I'm sometimes asked if The Dogs of Babel is really my first novel, or if I have a desk full of drafts of books that didn't make it. The answer is that The Dogs of Babel is the first novel I ever wrote, but not the first one I ever imagined. When I was about ten, I tried to write a novel called "Dress of Many Generations." It was about a young girl who finds a dress in her grandmother's attic; every time she puts it on, she's transformed into one of the women who wore it before her. It never got beyond the outline stage, although I enjoyed drawing pictures of the dress. When I was in high school, sick of cramming for the SATs, I decided that my first book would be a futuristic novel about a world where everyone has to take a standardized test to enter society. I lost interest once I started college. Twice, I've thought about turning short stories ? one about a young boy growing up on Alcatraz, the son of a guard; the other about a young widow who deals with her grief by visiting gargantuan statues all over the world ? into novels, only to find that I'd said everything I had to say about those particular characters in the space of the original, fifteen-page story. I once did some research for a novel about conjoined twins, only to decide that it was a subject too many people were writing about already. Another time, for a few weeks, I wanted to write a novel in which it turned out that the Beatles's "Paul is Dead" hoax of the late sixties wasn't a hoax at all and that the man known as Paul McCartney for the last thirty years is an impostor. (Not really enough to hang a novel on; besides, it sounded like a lawsuit waiting to happen.) Each of these had a brief but brilliant tenure in my head before crumbling when I tried to put them on the page.

Sometimes it's just a few words that grab me, a phrase that I find compelling but can't figure out what to do with. When I first moved to Washington, D.C., I had the unusual experience of seeing two presidents shopping for books. One was Bill Clinton ? I was part of a crowd on the sidewalk, held back by the Secret Service, while Clinton (who'd just entered office) ran into Mystery Books to browse. The second was Jimmy Carter; he came into the bookstore where I worked and did some Christmas shopping for his grandchildren. I was his cashier. For years, this phrase, "I have seen two presidents shopping for books" floated through my mind. It seemed to hold some resonance, but I couldn't figure out where to put it. Finally, I used it for my bio in a literary magazine that was publishing one of my stories; they wanted something quirky, beyond a list of past publications, so my bio, in its entirety, read "Carolyn Parkhurst lives in Washington, D.C., where she has seen two presidents shopping for books." Maybe not the best use I could have come up with, but I was glad to find it a home.

Perhaps there should be some kind of website, an eBay of ideas, where writers can auction off the plots and characters they're not using. If you want to write a mystery, you could just look up "Premises ? Mystery/Thriller" and find, "A street-smart notary comes back from the dead to solve document-related crimes ? No Reserve!" If your story is lacking in quirkiness, just check out "Characters ? Idiosyncratic" and place a bid on "Lion-Tamer Who Lives with His Mother ? Like New! L@@K!!!" Under "Twists ? Ironic," you might find, "Woman sacrifices everything to build perfume empire, only to lose her sense of smell. Starting bid $7.99." You could search for "Descriptions of sunsets": "The sun hovered there like a spicy huevo on the ranchero of the horizon." Or "Characterizations of evil": "Speeds up to run over small animals; has sinister moustache. Slightly used; smoke-free environment."

I'll start. I'll offer up my "roller coaster design"/"span of a human life" package. First idea's free. These phrases don't do anything for me, but if by some chance they jump out at you, stinging you with some sort of electric shock of inspiration, you're welcome to them. I fully expect to open up the New Yorker one of these days and find a short story, richly textured and crackling with emotion, about an amusement park tycoon who lives an average amount of time. I'm looking forward to it already.

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