Words on the Street, Revisited #4: Why Didn’t I Think of That? and/or Wait, That Was My Idea First!

Bi-weekly chatter about how looking closely at some of the most common expressions in everyday life can prompt new ways of thinking about our writing.


Picture this: It’s a Sunday morning, the sky is big, bright, promising. The coffee is smooth, the eggs are not runny, not dry. They’re like silk. Fresh berries sit, elegant and patient, in a tiny yellow ceramic bowl that maybe you purchased from a street vendor on the Amalfi Coast three or four summers ago.  The pastry folds on one perfectly imperfect chocolate croissant seem to smile up at you and whisper, “I’m yours. All yours.”

(If you don’t eat eggs or are allergic to berries or chocolate or even bright skies, insert your fantasy Sunday morning kitchen table scene.) And stay with me.

You open a favorite literary something: a novel, magazine, anthology, memoir, story collection, book of poems. Anything that pulls you in and calls you to come inside. On some days this scene moves along as blissfully as it begins, the story or article or poem transports you and you go on the ride. The ride we know (and love!) all too well. The ride that stories can unleash.

“Through our reading we can travel to other times and other places, into other people’s minds and hearts and souls: it is a transcendent experience,” Louise DeSalvo reminds us.

Yup, the ride. The glorious, magical ride.

When I turn to Page 120 in my wrinkled, coffee and pizza-stained copy of DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, she is right there in my literary imagination. She passes me a napkin with a message scratched out on it in blue or green marker: Don’t forget, as a reader you can fly away and as a writer you can, too. The reverberations of the reminder, translate to this particular DeSalvo book being on the reading list in almost all the classes I teach. Maybe that’s why it’s so weathered and worn, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

These are the good days.

But what about the other days? The ones where the breakfast spread is stellar and so is the weather. But then you open whatever it is you open to read and, one or two lines in, you feel deflated. Or defeated. Or just plain damned.

This is what we might call:  What it’s like when writers read something that either they wanted to write themselves or they did write (well, sort of) but it just hasn’t made its way into the world yet. 

Why Didn’t I Think of That? Wait, That Was My Idea First!

These moments are hard. They don’t bring out the best in us. They’re not pretty.

But like some other hard, unsavory and ugly realities I know quite well-a high school boyfriend choosing to break up with me in between classes at my locker on Valentine’s Day, my cluelessness about which remote does what, the weird stares my mother got when she used food stamps at the grocery store-these too can serve as catalysts for inquiry. Why? Why? And why?

But, for writers, asking why can also be energizing!

The calm, open-minded me might read an essay in a magazine I’m obsessed with and maybe even have had specific dreams about seeing my byline there and, because of the calm open mind, I might say to myself or another poor soul around me:

  • Why didn’t I think of that?

  • Was I thinking about something else instead?

  • How did the writer craft the story I wanted to write? What would I have done differently?

  • Is it really the same story or did it come off like that on my first read?

  • Wait, was this really my idea first? Or is that a childish response that limits creative pursuits and dissuades artists from remembering an essential notion: most of us are making work that features the same stories anyway. We are just making them with our own voices, styles. Using our own gold.

If you have a writing practice, there’s a good chance this column nudges you in the way friends poke each other because they are around a bunch of people but they have an inside joke. There’s a mutual understanding, an I-get-it sensation. At least that’s my hope.

The other hope is that the nudges and the inside jokes and even some of the uglies can create desire to build something new. “The antidote to envy is one’s own work. Always one’s own work,” writes Bonita Friedman.

We are whole people and whole writers. We can get exhilarated and inspired by the work of our peers and our idols. And we can get envious, too. It’s natural. And perfectly imperfect.

Like a chocolate croissant, I know from a dream.

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