Monday, May 19, 2014

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

 “A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave.”—Oscar Wilde

“Take, take, take.”—The White Stripes

A common question many authors sneer at, likely because the answer isn't nearly as simple as the question is innocuous. As if there could be any one place a writer gets their ideas.

I once told the editor of my former English department's newsletter, a man who wanted to publish one of my poems, that, in fact, I had not written any of my own work. I admitted to him confidentially that I had unearthed the various stories and poems at the end of a long stone wall beside a big oak tree. The scribblings were folded into a box under a rock that had no earthly business in that Maine hayfield. A piece of black, volcanic glass. I threw myself on his mercy for my literary treachery. If he believed me, I was pardoned, but my work was never featured in the newsletter.

Stephen King takes the opposite approach, saying he gets his ideas from “everywhere.” I don't know whose answer is more unhelpful, but his is closer to the truth.

Yesterday a middle school aged girl asked me, wasn't it true writers get most of their ideas from dreams? Never mind what I was doing talking to a middle-schooler, but the prevailing interest in the question surprises me. (I wasn't doing anything talking to the middle-schooler, just having lunch with my friend, her relative through marriage. She isn't married, he is. Never mind.)

Being a writer isn't something you are born with. You don't wake up one morning with a headache and a little case of being a writer. You don't have special story dreams, or invent a whole world halfway through breakfast. What you do is teach yourself to pay attention to things that are interesting. An artist might watch for interesting images; a musician listens for interesting sounds. Ideas don't pop into your head so much as you stumble over them in your reading, watching movies, or just walking down the street. What you have to do is know to stop and pick the thing up, wherever it comes from, so you can play with it later to see if the idea goes anywhere.

All writers are forgers. There's no need to be ashamed of that so long as your thefts are piecemeal. If you spent your whole life on a lonely island, what chance is there that you could write anything beyond the limited scope of the horizon and your own meager thoughts? You wouldn't even have any youthful fairy tales to populate your imagination. What you have to do is “stuff your head,” as Ray Bradbury said. Dive in to anything that interests you, and then when you sit down to write, or even if you're just daydreaming, you'll start shuffling the pieces around until you hit on something that excites you. You won't be able to help it.

Don't forget to play—that's key. Misbehave. Surprise yourself. Take what the other guy did and do just the opposite. Pluck a quote from The Shawshank Redemption and twist it to your own purpose. See what happens. Just maybe leave the antics out of your correspondences with publishers. Such people often have no sense of humor about the seriousness of their work.

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