"Where Do You Get Your Ideas?" A Touchy Question for Writers
Ideas are the golden seeds of writing
Apparently “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?” is the most common question that writers get asked. In the numerous books and articles I have read about writing, nearly every author mentions it. Frequently writers respond to this question with irritation, impatience, or puzzlement. For example, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Madeleine Blais talks about this question in her essay “What Was It Like?” Or, How to Find a Subject:
“I am always tempted to answer, ‘Why at the Idea Depot. Nice men in orange outfits climb long ladders to retrieve them from the top shelves.”
It would be really easy to write a hub called “Ten Smart Alecky Answers to the Question ‘Where Do You get Your Ideas?” But I won’t. Because honest people really want to know. Any act of creation, whether it is a story or essay, a painting, or a musical composition, is a mysterious and miraculous thing. The artist has brought something into being that did not exist before. And it started with a thought. A thought that leads to a new creation is an idea and an idea is the golden seed of art. Nothing can be created without it. So naturally people want to know where these precious seeds come from.
Ideas are abundant!
The truth is, if you know how to look at the world inside and outside of your mind, ideas are not hard to find. And joking about the "Idea Depot" aside, you can even buy them. I recently downloaded an excellent e-book called 1000 Writing Prompts by Bryan Cohen. Writing prompts can be ideas, or at least provide the rich soil where ideas can easily grow. In fact, ideas are so abundant, that the problem can be how to choose one gem out a beach covered with colorful pebbles.
Ideas can come from:
- Every scene you witness in the grocery
store between a mother and child
- Every bizarre little story in your local newspaper
- The vanity plates and bumper stickers on the car in front of you in traffic
- The old letter from an old boyfriend you dig out of a shoebox while cleaning
- That weird dream you had last night.
Even a color from the rainbow. What does purple make you think of? Go!
Powerful ideas come from areas of ambivilence
Madeleine Blais, in the essay mentioned above, suggests writing about things that make you feel uncomfortable or ambivalent. Have you ever been asked a question that made you feel irritated or evasive? This is probably an area rich in material for writing exploration, says Blais. The best writing can come out of those grey areas where the answers are not clear and the emotions are below the surface.
For me such questions might be “What was it like when your mother died?” Well, I was not with my mother when she died and I have ambiguous feelings about not being there: sadness, guilt, regret, relief. Another question someone might ask me that I could use as a starting point would be, “If you grew up in the Washington DC area, why did you go to high school and college in Colorado?” Seems like an innocent enough question, but the answer is complicated and tangled up with issues of alcoholism in my family.
Writing your truth and passion
But you don’t have to tear your heart out in order to write, do you? No, you don’t. If you like, you can stay in safe neutral places. You need never write about a single thing that touches painful memories, ambiguous feelings, or uncomfortable personal truths. You could spend your writing life focusing on things that don’t affect you (or anyone else) emotionally. For me, the finer points of punctuation would be a fairly safe area, and there are probably plenty of readers out there who need this information. But if I am going to stay interested in my writing, and more importantly, truly engage my readers, I may have to follow my ideas down some dangerous paths. One of my favorite writing quotes is from the book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King:
"...if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway."
And of course, Stephen King is primarily a writer of fiction. So he is talking about the kind of truth in which you go into yourself and write from an authentic place, not necessarily the kind of truth in which you record facts accurately. The most powerful, authentic writing comes from a place of inner truth, a place where you are expressing something that means something to you, most likely on an emotional level. Even if you are trying to convince your readers of a philosophical position using intellectual arguments, your writing is going to be most powerful if you feel passionately about the intellectual position.
Write what you care about
So say your idea is the color purple: tell your truth or share your passion about purpleness. Do you want to tell others about the amazing physical properties of purple? Do you want to write about the weather conditions that turn the sky purple, or how to use purple when painting shadows, or the purple dress your mother wore for years for every special occasion? Is purple the predominant color in your most vivid dreams? Personally I love purple, especially on the deeper blue-violet side of the spectrum, but I remember my grandmother Sally absolutely hated the color and would not tolerate it in her home. Now there’s an idea….
Ellis, Sherry. Now Write! Nonfiction: Memoir, Journalism, and Creative Nonfiction Exercises from Today's Best Writers and Teachers. Blais, Madeleine. "What Was That Like?" Or, How to Find a Subject." Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2009.
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