Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Thoughts on writing—where do ideas come from?

photo from sxc.hu by christgr
One of the first questions people tend to ask when you revealed the terrible secret that you’re a writer is, Where do you get your ideas. (After, What do you write, at which point you have to decide whether to say you’re working on the great American novel or books about vampires.) it’s an interesting question, and one I’m never sure how to answer.

I get ideas everywhere. I carry little notebooks in my purse so I can jot ideas down when they drop by. I have notebooks, folders, filing cabinets, binders full of ideas. I wake up in the middle of the night with ideas. My best friend feeds me ideas, usually as part of a nefarious plan to get me hooked on hockey.

I think most writers suffer not from a lack of ideas, but from idea overload. When I’m starting a new project, sometimes I look at the pile of ideas and have no idea where to start. Which one is the most marketable? Which one can I sell right away? Which one is most likely to land me an agent? It’s enough to paralyze the creative mind.

Capturing ideas can be tricky, too. Thus the notebooks. But how do you jot down an idea that comes as an image, or a feeling? Sometimes you can’t. Then you have to let the idea move where it will, in and out of consciousness, until it appears in a form you can easily add to your idea pool.

Or what about that idea that just gets away from you? The one that came to you at 2 a.m and you couldn’t wake up enough to write it down? If you’d written it down, it definitely would have been a bestseller, right?

Maybe, maybe not. My theory is that if it really was a good idea, and one I was meant to have, then it’ll come back. It’s like that old saying: If you love something, set it free. Some people aren’t comfortable with that idea. It used to bug me, too. Now I’m on medication.

Ideas come from everywhere, but the best ones can be elusive, or hard-won. These are the ideas that come back again and again, demanding to be written, each time with a few more layers, a bit more guidance about how the story should take shape. These are the ideas that are worth gold. When you find those, you’ll know. Capture them and let them grow.