Leave an Idea, Take an Idea: Five Things Someone Else Should Totally Do (Guest Blogger China Mieville)

        (The City & The City, an Amazon featured book for June.)

It's melancholy when you realise there are more things you'd like to do, or write, than you'll have time to, in your entire life. The endless triage of decent thoughts is necessary, a bit miserable, and a strong argument for the desirability of immortality. You cling even to the ones you doubt you'll start, as long as you can bear, just in case you find the time you know you won't.

But there's another category of ideas, a bit less frustrating, slightly more confusing, and necessitating a different response. These are those that are really, in one's own humble opinion, decent, with a potentially great audience, and without question worthy of pursuing...but that you know you'd mess up. If you even had time to start.

Just because someone comes up with a project is no reason they should be the one to follow through with it. 'I love this,' they might say, as I not-infrequently do, 'but I'm not the guy.' That doesn't mean it's not a good idea. So what to do about that? If you have a friend who could do a good job of it, you can always pass it on. But if you don't? And what about all the others that occur to you?

We should inaugurate a generous-spirited gift economy of thoughts. Plenty of shops in the US have those trays full of pennies that you can leave or take, depending on need. I see no more reason to hoard my I'm-not-the-guy ideas than my pennies. Accordingly, this is a short list of four books and one project that someone should totally do. Just not me.

1) Square Pegs

A non-fiction book, a collection of essays on and interviews with people who are members of organisations that are counterintuitive by our cruder assumptions. So, for example, Jewish members of the PLO; Muslim members of the BJP; Protestant members of Sinn Fein; Sinhalese pro-Tamil activists; and so, variously, on. The point here, I'd suggest (though it's not my project, because I'm Not The Guy--INTG), would not be to freakshow, to point and imply that these individuals are weird--though certainly, in some of the less savoury cases, there should be nothing to stop the critique of particular political positions--but in part to investigate how reductive or questionable are many assumptions we are encouraged to make about 'identities'. How and why did a particular person come to ally with a group traditionally conceived as opposed to her or his interests? How is s/he received by her allies and by her 'ethnic' (or whatever) community? Are they hopeful? Are they depressed? Can we generalise about such square pegs (I'd lay good money not)? It could be an extremely interesting book, or film, or whatever. It would need someone patient, with good interviewing skills, political subtlety, and a reasonable travel budget. Someone should totally do it.

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Comments (45)

It sounds interesting! You have listed listed very informative article.

Posted by: Create Corporate Logo | Thursday March 15, 2012 at 2:15 AM

The secret of being miserable is to have leisure to bother about whether you are happy or not .

Posted by: coach outlet | Wednesday November 3, 2010 at 2:17 AM

I loved this idea so much I took a few suggestions and have now written a short story based on Neil Gaiman's Weregoldfish. You can read it at www.nalot.deviantart.com I have also put a note as to where I found the idea. So thank you for inspiring me. I am also writing a novel which I started after reading this blog back in June. Thank you!

Posted by: Nalot | Wednesday December 2, 2009 at 3:58 AM

If i were just riffing, i'd go with "kangarovian." It's totally bastardized, but rolls well.

Posted by: Rachel | Sunday June 28, 2009 at 9:03 AM

Studs Terkel would have been ideal for #1! :(

I'd really like to get involved in this.

Posted by: Lynne | Wednesday June 24, 2009 at 2:59 PM

Hi, all. I actually registered the domain suggested in #5 (http://somsto.com/). I see some really good suggestions in the comments and hope to implement some of them very soon. For the time being, you'll see a placeholder, but I think "phase 1" will be a blog, as someone suggested.

If anyone has other ideas of would like to help with design and administration of the site, please contact me: admin AT somsto DOT com.


Posted by: chris | Tuesday June 23, 2009 at 6:40 AM

Studs Terkel would have been perfect for Square Pegs :(

Posted by: Lynne | Tuesday June 23, 2009 at 4:57 AM

I owe you a thanks. The notion of a "were-goldfish" caused me to start writing a story, which is somewhat of a godsend. My whole life I've had ideas for stories, but the notion of writing them always seemed to dwell within the realm of good ideas but never spurred on into a real life commitment. So far I'm having quite a good time writing this story. I'm hoping that this experience will not end once the story is written and that I will commit my own ideas into words. Thanks, you may have jumpstarted me.

Posted by: Alex | Monday June 22, 2009 at 9:45 PM

I had the idea of trying #2 too, but just as a personal exercise - an anthology would be way cool. SSTDT.

These are all brilliant, #5 especially exciting. A website and twitter hashtags springing into existence within days of the idea being posted - god I love the internet. A blog with an associated twitter account seems like a good idea, imo. It'd allow anyone who prefers one medium over the other to be comfortably involved.

Posted by: Tori T | Monday June 22, 2009 at 9:10 PM

Hi, folks. I'm the one who snapped up the domain referenced in #5. I see some good suggestions in the comments and hope to implement them soon in the site design. I think a blog might be good to get things rolling, and we'll go from there.

Please email me if you have any more suggestions or would like to help get this thing going!


Posted by: chris | Monday June 22, 2009 at 7:22 PM

Perhaps "Romaine the Prophetess" was simply a Vodoun devotee of a female Lwa (Spirit) and spoke as one possessed by his patron. Possession breaks down barriers of gender, race, class...all identity. That's what makes it so threatening to those who did/do not understand it, and so powerful to those who sought/are seeking transformation and social equity. Also, many Vodoun symbols were/are sensationalized and misconstrued as Satanic; the "inverted cross" may have been something else altogether. Vodou was probably the main religion of both slaves and free Maroons, so it makes sense in a historical context.

Posted by: Saum | Monday June 22, 2009 at 5:52 PM

This blog post reminds me of Stansilaw Lem's "A Perfect Vacuum", a compilation of reviews of fictional books.


A related site, not for book ideas, but for invention ideas, is at http://www.whynot.com -- with an online voting and rating system. They also have a "related sites" section here:


Posted by: J.V. | Monday June 22, 2009 at 7:55 AM

Does anyone have a complete list of the ideas from the Sandman book? I'd love to see that list.


Posted by: Kurt Roedeger | Monday June 22, 2009 at 7:13 AM

I love this idea, I'd love to be able to pass on some ideas, but please, please don't make it a Twitter thing. Some ideas just need more space for proper expression and...well...some people just really, really hate Twitter with an unreasoning passion...

Posted by: roswellgray | Sunday June 21, 2009 at 2:09 PM

#ideaswap and #somsto - okay; I'll be plugging them. Don't care which tag carries the day. But I agree with a few commenters that it would be better if there were some periodic (and automatic!) aggregation of such tweets on somsto DOT com or sstdt DOT com.

The forced brevity of Twitter does seem to lend itself best to this, though. The fewer details about an idea, the more it can inspire others by not preconditioning their thoughts.

There is a movement much like this in the scientific community, known as Open Science. Lab notebooks can be publicly accessible when held online (cf our group's notebooks here: http://openwetware.org/wiki/Etchevers:Notebook ). The point is that one group's data might inspire another group's ideas. Dr. Cameron Neylon is a champion of this cause and has a blog at the following link, of which I've chosen an example about using FriendFeed:


NaNoWriMo is certainly a repository for such volunteered literary ideas, but the aggregated short idea format may be easier to follow in RSS and later, to search.

Posted by: Heather | Sunday June 21, 2009 at 1:34 PM

You know, it occurs to me that Linn Ullman has written almost a "were-goldfish" with the story of the boyfriend who turned into a mackerel. It would be interesting to try to find out how many of Madoc's ideas already exist. But then, INTG. :-)

Posted by: Katta | Sunday June 21, 2009 at 1:00 PM

Also, someone else should totally overthrow that Iranian regime.

Posted by: TallDave | Saturday June 20, 2009 at 9:01 PM

There are web sites devoted to the monk parrots of Brooklyn College, fond of nesting on electrical transformers.

Posted by: Eric Jablow | Saturday June 20, 2009 at 7:34 PM

I suggest "kangaroan" as the adjective form. Not that it has any latinate character, it just trips off the tongue so nicely. I think it's a considerable improvement over the root word. The nominative form of that mega-marsupial is always an embarrassment to say. Any utterance ending in "roo" makers one sound slightly daft, at least in English.

Posted by: Neal Scroggs | Saturday June 20, 2009 at 2:33 PM

Square Pegs: I'd recommend "Indian Conquistador: Indigenous Allies in the Conquest of Mesoamerica," edited by Laura Matthew and Michel Oudijk. They finally tell the stories of the many thousands of native peoples who -- through coercion, pragmatism, or outright opportunism -- fought alongside Cortes and the Spanish conquistadors to win Mexico and Central America for the Spanish Empire. It is a collection of scholarly essays by the most cutting-edge historians of colonial Mesoamerica, and is based to a large extent on native-language sources (rather than European ones).

The "anti-reductive" nature of this book demonstrates that the pan-indigenous sentiment of modern times was a European invention in itself. In other words, there was no such thing as an "American Indian" until Europeans lumped the great diversity of peoples into one imaginary group and created that category. Notions of "racial solidarity" that are often associated with radical "revolutionary" groups today simply didn't exist until recently, and stem from European models of racial difference that were originally articulated to justify theories of European superiority.

Not too politically correct, but sometimes the truth hurts!

Signed -- a historian of Mexico

Posted by: Grundles | Saturday June 20, 2009 at 12:49 PM

#3 reminds me of something that Joss Whedon said, in one of the "Firefly" commentary tracks. He pointed out that each of us is living in our own movie, where we're the star, and that it's important to remember that when you're putting a scene together. "Thug Number Three" who stands in the background and has no lines? In his own mind, he's the most important character in the scene.

Posted by: DensityDuck | Saturday June 20, 2009 at 12:09 PM

Idea #5 is close to (but probably a better idea than) what we tried to do a couple years ago with the "Speculative Memepool" at The Future Fire (see http://futurefire.net/2005.04/nonfiction/memepool.html and http://futurefire.net/2006.05/nonfiction/memepool.html).

We'd be happy to contribute these ideas to the SomSToDoT, of course. One request: can new ideas or "pitches" be subscribable via RSS/Atom or similar. If there's a working group discussing/advising/putting this together, I'd love to be on it.


Posted by: Djibril | Saturday June 20, 2009 at 6:37 AM

Somsto sounds brilliant. I'd suggest a reddit-like structure, whereby people who also like the idea but don't feel they are the right ones for it may "second" an idea, so that the ones with a greater market potential float to the top. Although of course such a system is not foolproof, so proper search, tagging and category functions would also be necessary...

Posted by: Maggie K | Friday June 19, 2009 at 11:15 PM

Good ideas, all.

re: #5, I notice that someone has gone ahead and registered the suggested domain name (just today). In the event that the person who claimed it doesn't end up using it for this purpose (for shame!), I have registered sstdt.com (Someone Should Totally Do That), and I'd be happy to co-ordinate with (or relinquish it to) the right person. I'll keep it in reserve for now, until we see if the other one gets used for anything.

Posted by: Zac | Friday June 19, 2009 at 10:36 PM

This is such a great thing to do! :) And also, I'm considering what it would take to organize #2. I've been wondering how to go about becoming part of an anthology. Why not just create one? :)

Posted by: Teresa Jusino | Friday June 19, 2009 at 8:21 PM

It seems like a forum might be a little loose of a structure for something like this, unless it was rigorously moderated. Things tend to get lost! What would probably work really well would be an open 'pitch' thread, and then transcribing the ideas into linkable posts.

If someone builds it, I've been moderator and admin for a couple of forums. I volunteer my services to this project!

Posted by: Jaym Gates | Friday June 19, 2009 at 8:10 PM

This prompts fond memories of NaNoWriMo. Every year during the month of November threads pop up on the NaNoWriMo boards with thought provoking titles and story concepts. The creative energy generated during that month gives many participants more ideas than they can possibly use.

Sharing of ideas is something that all creative people should embrace. In fact, I want to take out the 'creative' from that last sentence. There are no 'creative' people, since there are no 'uncreative' people; not really. We each have within us some act of beauty, it's the sharing it with the world that is difficult. Perhaps some idea borrowed from another could be the prompt to realising that truth for many people out there?

Posted by: Lins | Friday June 19, 2009 at 7:28 PM

I love the idea of an idea swap. If anyone starts something like this up, be sure to let me know (or probably more importantly Neil Gaiman who has hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter and which is where I got the link to this article). This could really get people started on work who just don't know where to start or see something done with their ideas which is very positive reinforcement.

Posted by: Lance houser | Friday June 19, 2009 at 7:02 PM

Hey China

The slot in the penny jar is called Twitter.

:-) @philharrison

Seattle when?

Posted by: Phil Harrison | Friday June 19, 2009 at 6:43 PM

i dont know bout latinate term but u can call them marsupials i think

Posted by: katuray | Friday June 19, 2009 at 6:20 PM

As far as the Gaiman story, I *have* done that, even though I've never read the story. Years ago, a friend was reading those galloping ideas aloud, and I scribbled a few of them down, and wrote a few short stories. No idea where they are now, sadly.

I'd run an ideaswap board. That sounds like something I could totally dig. *grin*

Posted by: Shoe | Friday June 19, 2009 at 6:05 PM

I've also thought that of the Richard Madoc bits (first time I read it actually, struck me as at the least a great exercise lazy writing instructors could assign). Was also recently considering a fictional square peg situation (non-documentary) which is essentially a reversal of La Cage aux Folles, where the gay male patriarch is bent on strict family and social traditions and a befuddled set of bride's parents struggles to cope with this seeming contradiction.

I would also mention that I support art Darwinism: no ideas are original, so the preferred (and hopefully more widely distributed) final work is the one which is better executed.

Fantastic article, arrived here because of Neil Gaiman's twitter linkage.

Posted by: _kelly.King | Friday June 19, 2009 at 5:58 PM

There are some collaborative writing sites out there, such as http://www.protagonize.com, that have room for - and encourage - this sort of thing. Some stories are begun and left for others to pick up, other places fragments of ideas are shared in case someone else wants to run with them. So it's out there, just not necessarily where the higher profile authors go. It is a wonderful idea because it is true, we often come up with ideas we know we couldn't do justice to. Or get inspiration from someone else's idea.

Posted by: Kirsten | Friday June 19, 2009 at 5:58 PM

I would love this. I hope somebody follows through and I hope someone tells me about it when it happens.

I imagine it would be great for those folks who do the making, I mean, you sort of end up with a guaranteed audience don't you?

Also, the domain name is brilliant!

Posted by: Rachael Rose | Friday June 19, 2009 at 5:37 PM

I've got a few ideas rattling around that I'm sure someone else could run with so it is not a bad idea. I find ideas reasonable easy to come by, not all good ones I'm sure. I'm just rubbish at building on them.

Posted by: Tony Cross | Friday June 19, 2009 at 5:27 PM

regarding #2... I had the EXACT SAME IDEA more than a decade ago when I first read the Sandman books. I even considered writing them myself (I loved the one about the man who inherited a library card from the Library of Alexandria) but I thought it would violate copyright... wouldn't it?

Posted by: Bart | Friday June 19, 2009 at 5:25 PM

I have been told that I have great ideas, "Why aren't you a writer? That would make a great book!" Why not--it's because I am a Very Lazy Person. It would be a shame to let all of the great musings in the world go to waste. I hope something like sosto.com comes to pass.

The word you seek in the 1st para. of Idea #4 might be "kangarouent".

Posted by: Christopher Hsiang | Friday June 19, 2009 at 1:57 PM

It would also work well as a blog, with 5 of the ideas from the previous day's comments used as the next day's post. Each commenter can be contacted to flesh out their suggestion if necessary, then they can be compiled and posted. Just snag the domain name...

Posted by: Beth Cummings | Friday June 19, 2009 at 12:47 PM

I LOVE #2, I want someone to organize it so I can write a story for it.

#ideaswap sounds like an awesome idea to me.

Posted by: Cat Rambo | Friday June 19, 2009 at 12:19 PM

On my blog last week I posted a similar idea for a twitter group called #ideaswap. It's something I plan to push as I think sometimes the person who generates the idea may not want to or even be the best person to write it.


Posted by: danpowell | Friday June 19, 2009 at 11:01 AM

The main figures in the Haitian revolt appear in Kenneth Roberts's historical novel Lydia Bailey, together with several obscure but flamboyant figures of history. Roberts gives his primary sources in the end matter.

Posted by: Timothy | Friday June 19, 2009 at 10:17 AM

Sounds like you're asking to resurrect the lazy web: http://www.lazyweb.org/ (see the lovely wikipedia for history http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LazyWeb)

Posted by: Gareth Jones | Friday June 19, 2009 at 7:12 AM

Hi China.

Since kangaroo derives from an Aboriginal language, there is no Latinate adjectival derivation from it: the adjective (and, as it happens, the noun) is micropodid, kangaroos being part of the Macropodidae. This is true of lots of animal adjectives: ranarian (froggy), struthian (ostriches), strygine (owls) and, of course, canine, ovine, feline, lupine, bovine &c &c.

In case you haven't seen it, I reviewed TC&TC in today's Spectator. I loved it.

best aye

Posted by: Andrew McKie | Friday June 19, 2009 at 5:49 AM

(if anyone was trying to visit my blog (ha!), I auto-filled an old link, sorry)

Posted by: David Traver Adolphus | Friday June 19, 2009 at 5:11 AM

Dibs on #4! I'm a writer/photographer, but I'll leave the writing to my biologist writer friend.

Posted by: David Traver Adolphus | Friday June 19, 2009 at 5:10 AM

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