Where do you get your ideas?
Posted by Johanna Harness on Jun 20, 2012
“Where do you get your ideas?” It never occurred to me to be annoyed by this question until I heard other writers grousing about being asked. They would often launch into too-rehearsed riffs about idea clearing houses or super stores.
While growing up, I was often asked where I got my curls. I had one friend who always used to jump in and answer for me. At Karcher Mall. At K-Mart. At Curls R Us. She’d laugh and tell me how tired she was of the question—and I smiled with her.
But when she wasn’t there? I’d talk about my grandfather and how much he hated his curly hair, how he’d wet it before bed and sleep with a nylon stocking over his scalp, anything to tame the wildness.
Later in life, I’d confess to others how much I hated my hair and I’d talk about my grandfather again. I’d remember the day we were out boating and I sat at the bow, my hair whipping everywhere, making me crazy, and my grandfather leaned over to my grandmother and much-too-loudly told her how beautiful it was. I wanted to scream. It was his hair. Maybe no one else would understand my frustration, but I always thought he would.
Even later, I’d talk about my grandfather’s passing and the way my love for him somehow dripped with my tears into those very same curls, how I finally internalized his love for me and I never cut my hair again.
“Where’d you get your curls?” That was an invitation for me to talk about my grandfather. Maybe the person asking really wanted to know what brand of curls-in-a-box they should buy, but they got an answer about my grandfather. It didn’t occur to me to be annoyed, even though the question clearly did annoy my friend.
I’m the same way with “Where do you get your ideas?” I apparently hear a much deeper question than most people hear. Quite possibly, I hear more than the questioner is really asking. (Curls In A Box? Aisle 5B. Bottom row.)
When I hear, “Where do you get your ideas?” I hear a question about the elements in a writer’s life that give rise to story.
Yes, I do have more ideas than I’ll ever be able to write. They bubble to the surface all the time, often while I’m trying to finish another story and have no time to pay attention. Some of them are good ideas. Some of them are crap. But there they are, bubbling–possibly bright and cheerful like an artesian well, more likely thick and explosive like a mud pot.
All the same, the underlying question about ideas is a fascinating one. “Why?” Why do some people live their lives with an endless bounty of stories waiting to be written while others do not? Why do song writers hear music? Why do poets experience bursts of perfect words? Why do sculptors see images in stone? Why do photographers see the perfect framing for a landscape while I’m pointing and clicking? Why? Where does this creative inspiration come from? Why is it present in some people and seemingly absent in others?
And what about the variances within an individual’s life? Despite the fact that I have more ideas than I’ll ever be able to write, I’ve also experienced times when the bubbling stops. In my last post, I wrote about creating order and meaning in our lives—about the way our writing output changes as our personal paradigms shift.
Is this a writing block? Maybe. I think it has more to do with creative exhaustion—creation in another part of our lives taking precedence over creating stories. Maybe we’re belly-hopeful with child or designing a curriculum or building a house. Our energies go elsewhere, like a stream diverted.
So, yes, there are times that are less conducive to writing. We all know that. Crises happen. Schedules change. Strangers bring messages that knock us back—all the stuff of stories, yet painfully real. But if there are conditions that make writing more difficult, is the inverse true as well?
Are there ideal conditions that give rise to story?
I think yes.
Given time, shifting paradigms lead to epiphanies we need to communicate with others. We pull out our personal creative tool set and get to work. If we are painters, we paint. If we are writers, we write—but even among writers there is such variation. One writer might respond to the death of a parent through memoir, another through horror, another through a quirky young adult fantasy. The result might focus on life or death, light or shadow, it might be dark or humorous—or darkly humorous. The brain that filters experience and produces art contains Whitman’s multitudes.
How a writer filters and distills experience into story has much to do with voice which has much to do with personality which has much to do with not just where but how we stand in the world in relation to everyone and everything else. And even this statement has much to do with who I am, a writer of the American West, a firm believer in rugged individualism and independent thinking. I do not see culture giving rise to literature. I see individuals in a culture reacting to specific situations in a specific context—and stories materializing out of that individual experience.
Maybe the question I hear isn’t so much, “Where do you get your ideas?” but “Why do you get your ideas?” or “How do you get your ideas?” or “When do you get your ideas?” or “Why do those ideas reveal themselves to you?”
And really, maybe it’s the depth of the mystery that leads writers to give the easy answer. “Aisle 5B. Bottom row.”