Today concludes a series of articles on becoming a better writer of original fiction, which came out of a post I did on the topic in 2011. Today is all about inspiration, which for me is the most fun part of writing.
Where Do You Get Your Ideas?
Most writers disdain the question “Where do you get your ideas?” and have come up with a number of cutting and condescending replies. That is because writers are
- often unconscious of their own processes, and
- very frequently douchebags.
Like many artists, the vast majority of writers are terrified of the threat that one day they won’t have any more ideas, or their writing will be no good, or nobody will like what they do. Especially for professional writers, whose livelihood and identity are wrapped up in Being A Writer, this is a dreadful thought. Neil Gaiman neatly inverted this in Calliope, when he told the story of a man cursed by a muse to have so many ideas he can never write any of them down fully.
So writers don’t poke at their craft. They frequently don’t investigate where ideas come from or their process of writing, because they’re scared if they do the magic will go away. And those that do have an inkling of how Writing Happens are often scared that if they tell you how things work, you’re going to steal the magic. Or at any rate be better at it than they are, which is practically the same thing.
I am deeply insecure on any number of fronts, but fortunately not in this. I don’t think the magic is going to go away, and I’m not afraid of the day it might. A great deal of that is probably due to exposure as a teen to Alex Haley’s remarkable essay The Shadowland Of Dreams, which talks about the difference between vocation and identity. Even so, his essay about not defining yourself as “a writer” still encourages creatives to depend only upon their creativity, which can make a person defensive.
Writing is only a part of my identity. I have a day job. I also like art, and theatre, and cooking, and when people ask me what I “do”, I don’t say “writer”. Maybe that makes me less of a writer than I could be, but I don’t think so; in many ways, writing on my own time and self-publishing the results frees me to explore channels that contracted writers can’t. I get to rummage in all the scary places most writers won’t go.
So here is the secret of the magic: IDEAS ARE EVERYWHERE, and you can have them all the time if you want.
The vast majority of our communication at any given time is composed of stories. You get dozens of them in the newspaper every day. You hear them as you pass people on the street. You can see them just looking at some people. I know someone whose mother likes watching commercials because “they’re like short little stories!” We talk in stories all the time. We live out stories every day. The trick is to know how to turn an experience into an idea — to think, if this were a story, what would happen? What is that person’s story? What can I take from this? And that’s just a matter of habit.
- While I was writing this, a reader commented to ask me what the hell one does with turkey tails, because they just received four of them and don’t know how to cook them. I don’t know either, but what a marvelously absurd predicament to be in. Adventures in Turkey Tails. That’s a humorous blog entry at least. And the research! You google turkey tails, you’re going to get stories. And really delicious-sounding soul-food recipes, it turns out.
- The other day we were discussing a news story about a stolen religious relic in California, and that got me onto Napoleon’s infamous severed penis, and someone else linked me from there to the holy prepuce. Do you know how many stories about damaged or venerated dicks I now have bouncing around in my head? At least three, and that’s not even counting the student I once had who broke his dick. How would one unite the stories of Napoleon and Rasputin’s penes with the Holy Prepuce? Well, what if you were an expert in historical genitalia, and one was stolen, and you had to find out who did it? That’s a novel. (One which incidentally I might write, so nobody nick the idea, ok?)
The best way to “get ideas” is to read, to go out and look at stuff, to research things that are interesting to you, to have fantasies of any kind you like, and all the while to be thinking, how is this a story? What makes it interesting? How does this speak to the way I feel, or the way I think? Would it do the same for others? Is this funny or tragic or both? Why?
Ideas are all around you all the time, and there’s no real magic to having them. Just observation and habit. It’s not easy at first, but it gets easier.
And that is the secret of Where Ideas Come From. I feel so much better for having gotten this off my chest, you have no idea.
Conclusions are suppose to summarise and restate one’s thesis, so let’s see. These are the things I believe make people become better writers:
Be committed and patient. Understand that work is sometimes necessary. Study your chosen masters. Think critically, and understand criticism. Learn the tools of your craft and fit them to your needs. Don’t fear the end of creativity. Train yourself to see the stories all around you.
And don’t worry too much about conclusions.