AS A WRITER, there is one question I can’t seem to escape no matter how hard I try to dodge it. At book readings and festivals, the question comes at me almost as soon as the mic is passed on to the audience. And it is a question which nearly every writer I know, both dead and alive, has come to accept as a blessing and a curse: where do you get your ideas?
Neil Gaiman entertained the possibility of providing a series of bogus answers to the question. He would sometimes offer explanations along the lines of obtaining ideas from a secret club whose sole purpose of existence is to offer random ideas, each month, to anyone looking for them. Though, in the end, he resorted to telling the truth: “I make [ideas] up. In of my head.”
Contrary to popular belief, an idea very rarely come in all its glorious attributes. If you’re looking for an inspiration in the form of getting that dimming lightbulb in your head to suddenly come alive, or stepping out of a bathtub Archimedes-style, screaming “Eureka! Eureka” — you might be in for quite a wait.
What usually happens when an inspiration strikes is you feel a tiny spark of something. A flicker of light somewhere in the deep corners of your mind, buried under layers upon layers of your garden variety thoughts.
It’s that minute-long dream you have about vampires who are actually vegan, or a robot that gives birth to a ball of wires. It’s the strange glance someone throws at you on the train, or while walking down some familiar street. Or it’s your lover saying something totally uncharacteristic one day when you least expect it.
An idea can be anything. And it isn’t always original, or interesting, much less life-changing. Where writers are concerned, ideas don’t usually come to us with fixed plotlines, great characters or jaw-dropping openings. If they did, then we wouldn’t have to do any actual writing. We would simply hire a typist. Because, you see, more often than not, what ideas do is pique your interest as a creator. And, at its best, ideas are meant to grab you by the collar and tell you to either get to work or get lost.
So, where do ideas come from? Everywhere. If you’ve been following recent developments of Pokemon Go, I can tell you that ideas are much, much easier to find than pikachu.
Stories are all over the place, waiting to be plucked out of obscurity and molded into something life-like: whether it’s of a man who has just lost his wife to a deadly disease, or a child wandering alone inside a mall, or a woman working three jobs to make ends meet, or a cat who finds itself able to speak in human language for the first time — ideas are never more than at arm’s reach. And, sometimes, it’s a lot closer than that. For writers like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose books and short stories are often modeled after real-life situations and personas, the best ideas are those cultivated from people they know. Hemingway was a heavy proponent of “write what you know” and nearly all of his fiction can be traced back to his personal experiences. Indeed, it is the dynamic between the man on the page and the man off the page that has made his art so intriguing.
However, Nathan Englander, whose collection of stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About
Anne Frank, was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012, warned against misconstruing the popular advice.
“It’s not about events,” he said in an interview with Big Think, a knowledge forum. “It’s about emotions. Have you known love? Jealousy? If you’re writing what you know, the readers will feel it.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, the Austrian poet known for the string of letters he sent to an aspiring young poet between 1903 and 1908, had this to say about ideas: “If your everyday life seems poor […] admit to yourself you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches. For the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place.”
Listen, I’ll be honest. I don’t know what works for you. Maybe you’re the sort of person who can only write when you venture forth in your head toward the unknown and fantastic; maybe, like Hemingway, you like to pick apart your own past and restructure them as fiction. The only thing you need to understand is this: writing is hard work. You can’t will it, nor wish it. You have to do it. Finding ideas is probably the easiest part of the job.
Of course, ideas aren’t enough. They’re a good place to start, but they can’t stand on their own — no matter what Leonardo DiCaprio preached in Christopher Nolan’s Inception.
So, let’s change the question: How do you turn intangible ideas into tangible art? And let’s set about answering that.