FIND­ING STORY

The Jakarta Post - JPlus - - Short Story - BY MAG­GIE TIOJAKIN

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.

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