Story ideas and the question every writer dreads
I recently read an interesting post on The Writers’ Room regarding where story ideas come from – and where a person might look for ideas to spark something creative. I’ve always thought this is a pretty interesting question, even though it seems to be the bane of every published writer doing a public appearance. Still, it’s not a bad question, really – it’s just hard to fully answer, and the asker often won’t like the answer.
Let’s start with the question itself.
I didn’t always know where story ideas came from. I used to think there was a magic well of ideas, or a large idea cloud in the ether that only the most talented of people could access. I thought perhaps you had to be specially marked in some way by the God of Creative Endeavours, or that you had to have a muse you made regular offerings to in order to be furnished with interesting ideas to write down. I thought that being a Real Writer meant having access to Grand Ideas that the rest of us mere mortals weren’t allowed to access to.
I’ve learned otherwise since then. Now I know that when writers at readings look annoyed with the inevitable “Where do you get your ideas?” question (and someone always asks), it’s not because it’s a big secret. They didn’t swear an oath on pain of death to not tell non-writers about the big Idea Library under the city – they’re annoyed because the only answer is, as Neil Gaiman says, “I make them up, out of my head.” And the question asker is looking for something more concrete. They want that Idea Library to be real. They want to know how much a membership is. They assume that once they are furnished with a Grand Idea that a well-written story will flow like water – and that some measure of fame and accolades and money will follow shortly thereafter.
But, this isn’t how it works.
Louisa from The Writers’ Room sensibly points out that ideas can come from nearly anywhere – and that’s true. She found inspiration from a news clipping about her family. I’ve found inspiration in a picture of a tomato on the Internet. We both found things that caught our attention and interest, and then we asked questions. In Louisa’s case she might have wondered, “What was it like for my Grandmother to find out her brother had died?” and “What happened afterward – how did they go on?” I looked at a picture of a lumpy tomato in a blog post entitled “Nightmare tomato from our nightmare garden” and asked myself, “I wonder what else would grow in a nightmare garden?” and “What does the Internet have to say on the subject of nightmares?” and these questions led to more questions, and ultimately to my ‘interview’ with Morpheus.
So, the ideas are not that difficult to find. But, getting them on paper…that’s another thing altogether. And I think when people ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” they mean that, but also “How do you write them down well enough that other people want them?”
A good idea is only a small part of writing. A good idea will not magically imbue you with powers to write well. Writing takes a lot of work. Writing well takes even more work. It means writing a lot. It means reading a lot. It means a lot of long hours on your own just putting words down. And then it means letting other people read it, and getting useful criticism back and learning to use that feedback to improve what you’ve written. It means killing words you’re fond of because they don’t work. It can mean killing characters. It means that you can’t leave half the story in your head and figure readers will sort it out for themselves (they don’t – and they will, and should, criticize you for such sloppy work). It means not jumping on ‘popular thing this year’ publishing bandwagon. Sometimes it means walking away from a story that just doesn’t work – even though you love it and worked really hard on it.
And if you’re in this for the money and accolades – forget it, and find something else to do. Most writers don’t make enough to live off their work. And that assumes they ever make anything at all from it. There is a lot of great stuff that never gets published or read. And now that people can self-publish, and there seems to be very little in the way of quality control, there’s also a lot of really terrible writing out there obscuring the good stuff.
Writing is work, and you have to love it and be willing to do the work. That’s the big secret. There’s no finicky muse waiting for the right offering from you. There’s no God of Creative Endeavours. There’s no Idea Library under the city. The ideas really do just come from your head where you make them up. And then you write them down as well and honestly as you can. And you do it knowing that maybe no one will ever see the words (and even if they did, that maybe no one will like them).
You do it for yourself because you have to.
Rilke said it best (as he often does):
“Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.
This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose…”
Letters to a Young Poet
So, go into yourself – that’s where the ideas are, and the courage and strength to express them.
Credit: featured image courtesy of Free Digital Photos.