WARNING! IN THE FOLLOWING COLUMN I SHALL ENGAGE IN A SERIES OF GROSS GENERALIZATIONS. WARNING!
The question writers dread most is “Where do you get your ideas?” Of course, the universe and its ironies being what they are… that’s also probably the single question we get asked the most often. (1)
And because we mostly don’t know where we get our ideas–or if we do know, because the answer is hopelessly complicated–we develop a battery of mildly amusing quick answers, so we can get past that part of the interview and on with things we might actually have a chance of not sounding like idiots talking about.
Well, I’m here to break the cone of silence and talk about where those ideas come from.
Some of them are, indeed, inspiration. They leap up from some deep preconscious place and seem to emerge fully-formed. I have a story–“The Chains that You Refuse”–that exists because my friend Celia Marsh bet me I couldn’t write a story in future perfect second person, and have the POV and tense choice actually inform the story. We were in a chat at the time, and without hesitating, I typed, “It will have been raining in Harvard Square for only half an hour when you give up hope.”
And I was off. I finished the first draft in about an hour, and I’ve never done anything much by way of editing it except moving the semicolons around. It just came out that way–which is almost unheard of for me; I edit and revise very heavily. Looking at it, I can identify some of the DNA from which my subconscious spliced it: a few nights I spent walking around Boston in the rain, a black denim jacket I wore habitually through my twenties, the too-good-to-resist names of some shops and restaurants in Harvard Square, a juggler I once saw performing street theatre there, the Shriekback song “Signs,” and of course the Great East Coast Blackout of 2003 (2)
But when it got itself writ, it was a synthesis, a blaze of inspiration, a flash of glory. It happened all at once.
Or so you might think, but the fact was that I had been collecting its various component parts for years, squirreling them away like a New England farmer ploughing up rocks for an eventual dry fieldstone wall. Celia’s comment was a catalyst, a grain of sugar dropped into an already supersaturated solution.
More often, this process happens a lot more slowly. I start off with a single idea, something I know I’m going to use eventually, and I pack that away in a corner–possibly I start writing it, and possibly I don’t–and then I start looking for the other bits that go with it. To extend that drystone wall metaphor painfully, you put in the big boulders first, and then you look for the bits that fit perfectly around them.
If you just pile up big rocks, you have a pile of rocks. The pieces you use to support and shape the wall are essential to its structure.
So say you’re building a wall… er. Writing a novel. You might start with one big block and a couple of little ones, and have no real idea yet how they go together. So you fuss with them a bit, move them around, and figure out some of the ways they might fit. But then you need more pieces. Fragments, bigger stuff. Great big chunks you have to call a friend to help lift. You start putting them together and see how they fit, and when you’ve got them wedged and balanced just right–voila, you have a book. Or a wall. Whatever.
So where do you find all these bits?
I find ‘em in all kinds of spots. The answers are going to be different for you, but some of the places I look are in news stories (3), songs, nonfiction, television documentaries, fiction, poetry, personal experiences, conversations, and stuff I just stumble upon. After a while, you become like a treasure hunter–always keeping your senses peeled for the perfect little thing that will prop of the wobbly end of that big lump and make it fit seamlessly into the whole. (4)
Image by helena.40proof, used under a Creative Commons license.
(1) Even more often than “Will you read my manuscript?”
(2) which I cleverly missed, because I was in Las Vegas at the time…
(3) especially some of the quirkier stuff that gets on NPR
(4) I think this is part of what people mean when they talk about artistic awareness