Why the Teachers Tell You Not to Write Idea

My fiction writing professors at Fresno State and the University of Oregon urged us not to write “ideas.”

Spoons copy

One time I told Steve Yarborough, who was my Fiction professor, that I had a good idea for a story.

“Stop right there!” he said in his thick southern accent. “That’s where you’re going wrong. A story should not be about an idea, but about a person.”

This same principle was differently articulated by many other of my fiction writing mentors, and, albeit, there are some valid reasons.

But as young Chicano writers, Andrés Montoya and I wrestled with the subject of didacticism, of a political assertion in poetry and fiction. We thought anything that contradicted our political statement was an attempt by the cultural oppressor to impede our voices. Stories and poems without political purpose?

Cracker Craft! Art for art’s sake!

Montoya used to quote Roque Dalton, calling nonpolitical poets clowns.



But I think the important thing for a fiction writer is to not let the ideas give form to the novel or story.

When you use the sound of language to enter into a landscape, you cannot not help but to create one in your own image.

Your ideas and values cannot escape from being released into the universe you’re imagining.

If you believe something to be a true principle of reality, it will reflect strongly in the fiction you write.


I Think I Think for a Living.

When I was a kid, as I was worrying about something, I don’t remember what, maybe that the rain was going to seep into the ground in our backyard and flood the city of ants I used to observe, I don’t remember. I just remember I was worried about something.

I was using intense Creative Energy to run scenarios of doom through my head, when my mom suddenly said, “Danny, you think too much!”

My mother died very early, it’s been over 30 years now, and I can’t remember everything she ever told me, but that one comment sticks to me. I was probably seven years old, but today I can still hear her voice say it, “Danny, you think too much.”

Mom at Christmas

I don’t remember what I wanted to be when I was seven, maybe an actor or some other fantasy career a kid might want, but fate would have it that I ended up a fiction writer.

One of the greatest things about my life as a writer is the solitude, the quiet.

I wake up in the morning while it’s still dark, I run, and then I write.

What do I write about?

Things I think about.

Like one time I was standing before a painting at some museum, looking into the eyes of the subject, and she almost seemed real to me. It was spooky. I wondered if a painter could release souls into a  work of art.


Maybe the dead can live in paintings, not only in the representation, but in the spirit of the brushstrokes, the energy of the colors. Hiding in the shadows.


And maybe, when a fiction writer creates a character, unconsciously, we’re accessing energy from the dead, and we release souls into our language. Maybe that’s how our characters become so real to us, and we can’t help but care about them.

Maybe a work of art is a place for the dead to release their spirits, so they can go on to heaven or wherever their faith leads them, yet they leave a part of them behind with us. They are the ghosts in our language.

writer and dead

I know, I know!

I think too much.

My mom was right.

Eventually this idea seeped into one of my novels, The Cholo Tree, about Victor, a young artist.

He discovers that every time he paints a tree, his dead father, a hardcore cholo, is swirling in the brush strokes.

The impulse for The Cholo Tree was Victor, a voice, a desire, a linguistic song in my gut. He was one of those characters that wouldn’t leave me alone. I didn’t set out to write about the dead, I just followed Victor’s voice, but his cholo father was violently killed by the police, and Victor himself legally died for a few minutes, and the dead started following him everywhere.

¡Méjico, Mexico!” by Frank Romerodead chicanos

When my mom said, “Danny, you think too much,” I was I was too young to have  heard that famous quote by Blaise Pascal: “All men’s miseries derive for not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”

Writing is around 80 percent thinking and 20 percent butt-time.

I somehow knew thinking too much didn’t have to be a bad thing.

And now I think for a living.

And I think that’s great, if I don’t think about it too much.