Wednesday, October 1, 2014

What's the big (or little) idea?

from 101 Things I Learned
in Architecture School
Next week I'll be teaching a nonfiction writing class in Boston. It will be held at Grub Street, a remarkable organization that began twenty years ago when a recent MFA grad nailed fliers to telephone poles in her neighborhood and began teaching writing classes in her apartment. Today, Grub Street has several thousand members and each year puts on one of the largest and best writers' conferences in the country, Muse and the Marketplace.

My own entry into the writing world has been without benefit of extensive formal training in writing. But there are many parallels in the creative process in writing and architecture, so I often turn to my architectural training for insights. In my writing course, I'll be drawing from one particularly hard-earned lesson from architecture school. In a second-year studio, 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 building seemed quite simple. The site was simple, too: a sea of anonymous suburban asphalt—the Great American Strip, our instructor called it.

I confidently sat down at my drawing table and got to work. I drew a large rectangle and filled most of it with bookshelves. In a corner near the front door I placed a cash register. In a back corner I carved out an office and a storage room. Next, I…

World's Biggest Bookstore, Toronto,
closed March 2014.
This wasn’t going to work. Already, I could hear the vacant buzz of fluorescent lights over my neat, parallel rows of shelves. My store didn’t sell books; it peddled ennui. But from my struggles on previous projects, I knew what the problem was: my bookstore lacked an idea. Unfortunately, I wasn't sure what an idea was, let alone how to find one, so what was I to do? I was trying to design a bookstore on the Great American Strip, and there was nothing I could find 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 called a friend in the class; he was equally clueless, and perhaps clueless about his cluelessness. After several more hours of pacing, I remembered something I had overheard in school: a good design solution is an eloquent restatement of the problem. I wasn’t sure what this meant, but it seemed to hold a possibility. So I spent the rest of my 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, and by Tuesday I was in a full-blown panic. I needed to design a bookstore on the Great American Strip, and I had nothing.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, clarity: I needed to design a bookstore on the Great American Strip. How obvious!

Robert Venturi, inspired by this building in
Flanders, New York, used the term "duck" to
describe a building that literally expresses
its purpose.
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. My bookstore needed to embody this. And so, amidst the architectural “ducks” of the suburban strip—a Chinese restaurant with a pagoda roof, a strip joint with blinking breasts, and a Leaning Tower of Pizza—I envisioned my own duck: a classical building conveying, “culture within.” Nothing too serious, but not too jokey either. Perhaps an interpretation of the Tempietto—a beautiful, extraordinarily unified little building in Rome.
Tempietto di San Pietro in Montorio, Rome Italy.
The drawings for my less serious bookstore
adaptation, although successful, were not as
worthy of being preserved.

The possibility was exciting, but the territory felt alien and full of risk. The regurgitation of classical architecture was not rewarded in architecture school, and I had no inherent disposition toward doing so. But I forged ahead. I made a few marks on the page, and a few more, and I nudged things this way and that. Before long, the building was designing itself. A central display room appeared under the dome, with light filtering through clerestory windows. A columned portico provided a transition from the parking lot. Shelves and displays began to fill the facets of the octagonal floor plan. 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, without a specific idea to drive and unify one's efforts. The lesson is as true in literary endeavor as in architecture. If you are trying to write a memoir about all the interesting things you have done in your life, you lack a real idea. You’re doing the autobiographical equivalent of lining up bookshelves under fluorescent lights. But if, say, you’re writing a memoir that combines a reflection on your geeky teenage years with a journalistic investigation into contemporary geek culture, I’d say you have a real idea. If you want to write a book on baking desserts for every occasion, you don't have an idea, because you're trying to be all things to all people. But a book on baking cookies for a once-a-year cookie exchange party? That's a real idea.

The fear we naturally have in narrowing our creative energies to something so specific is that we won't attract an adequate audience. However, the opposite actually is the case. When we try to appeal to everyone, we end up appealing to no one. But when we narrow our efforts, we increase the likelihood that a particular group of readers will say, "this is the book I've been looking for." This is the case for humor books, do-it-yourself books, travelogues, history books, and every other form of nonfiction. A book needs 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.

What’s the Big (or Little) Idea? Creating Nonfiction Books that Work 
Do you have an idea for a memoir, cookbook, travelogue, self-help book, or other nonfiction project, but it’s not yet a great idea? Are you knee-deep in a project in which dozens of ideas are competing for space, and you don’t know how to make them cohere? Or do you already have a strong project, but it lacks a certain something that will make it stand out among the hundreds of pitches that agents and editors field each week?

This workshop will introduce numerous strategies and writing exercises that will help you discover, broaden, narrow, heighten, deepen, or redefine the core concept for your nonfiction project, with the goal of identifying a singular, clarifying idea that will organize it, tell you what belongs and doesn’t belong in it, and make it “pitchable.” Whether you are just beginning or are feeling mired in a long-term effort, you will leave this session with a fresh perspective on your project.
162 Boylston St, Boston, MA 02116
(617) 695-0075
$130.00 non-members / $110.00 members

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