***If you have not already read my post from March 8 (“Words of Warning Before Any Words of Wisdom”), I highly recommend doing so before you begin.***
One of the most damning questions that career writers complain about is the classic where do you get your ideas?. Or – even worse, according to Stephen King – WHY do you get your ideas?. Despite my amateur status, I can see how both this question and the motivations behind it are a potential minefield. Even setting bestselling novels aside for the moment, where do any of our ideas come from? Ask me where I got the idea to put in a brick-and-gravel pathway around the side of my house. Give me time and I can give you a litany of answers: Something I saw on a neighbor’s house, something I saw while I was out on a run, something I saw on television, something that seemed logical since there’s already a similar walkway around the back of the house, something that seemed inevitable once I saw that Menards had the gravel and the pavers on sale last summer…. But I doubt any of those answers are true. The closest I can come to the truth is that one day I was walking up my driveway, I stopped, I looked at the grass leading up to the side gate, and I thought…yeah. And, quite frankly, it was the middle of July. I was six weeks removed from school in either direction, all of the projects I’d been putting off during rugby season were done, football camp had come and gone, and I was getting bored. I needed a project, so I invented one.
Is that what writers do?
I don’t entirely know. I suppose it depends on the writer.
I can point to a story here or a story there, I can point to elements of the novels I’ve finished and the ones I’m working on, and I can probably pinpoint the thought or the initial idea that got my wheels turning. But I doubt I could tell you where that thought came from. And it’s not like any of those titles struck me as fully realized plotlines and outlines simply waiting to be brought to life on the page. A lot of what those stories are is what they became during the act of writing. Let’s be real – I don’t think anyone believes that Kubla Khan actually came to Coleridge in a dream.
To me, the appropriate question is not Where do you get your ideas? but rather How do your ideas come to you?. Although that’s still tricky. For each of us, the process is going to be different. The closest thing I can come to a general rule might be this: Find time to let your mind wander. In other words, give your imagination a chance to run free for a while.
Like a teenager out cruising on a Friday night, your imagination will probably spend most of its time following the same paths and stopping at the same hangouts it always does. We all have routines that we follow in addition to a list of thoughts, ideas, apprehensions, and misgivings that preoccupy us. But kids don’t go out driving around in pursuit of the same-ol’-same-ol’. They get behind the wheel expecting tonight to be the night, when a routine night out becomes a story they’re going to tell for the rest of their lives. So what if the night starts out by taking a few mundane turns? And so what if mundane turns are the only ones it takes? There’s always next Friday. So why should we despair if the idea for the next great American novel doesn’t come to us on any given day? There’s always next time. Even teenagers know that.
But none of that really answers the question of How?. Which, for the moment at least, takes me back to my original words of warning. We are all who we are. And we have to not only accept that, but embrace it. We work in our own ways with whatever hours we can find. It may take months or even years of trial-and-error-before you develop your own unique groove. Sadly, no one can tell you what or where it is. All I can share with you is what seems to work for me. You can try it if you want to. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t sweat it. Just move on to something else.
With that said…for me, the best times are when I’m doing relatively mundane tasks in which I can completely absorb myself physically but from which I can completely detach mentally. This usually boils down to one of two things: Running and mowing the lawn. In either case, I get fresh air, sunshine, and an hour or more totally to myself. When I’m jogging, I always have headphones on. I rarely pay attention to the music that’s playing, but there’s something to be said for having a rhythm to work to. And I like that it affords me a thin layer of isolation from the rest of the world. I enjoy the white noise of the lawnmower for the same reason. Cruising in my own little bubble of routine activity and wandering thoughts, I often have my best moments of insight and inspiration.
But not always. Most Fridays are just like any other Friday.
I posted on my Facebook page last Monday that there’s nothing like a six-mile run to help you iron out some plot holes. And during those six miles I was lucky enough to resolve several issues I’ve been wrestling with in my new book. But yesterday I ran a little over nine miles and…..nothing. So be it. My mind still got let off its leash for over an hour, and I still got a great run out of the deal.
When I deliberately force myself to sit down and think up ideas, I often fail. This can be attributed to a variety of factors: Too many distractions, heart not being in it at the time, stage fright, whatever. You can train a dog to sit, stay, and beg. You can teach children to wash up before dinner and keep their elbows off the table. But have you ever tried to sit someone down, stand over their shoulder, stare down at them sternly, and say BE CREATIVE?
Don’t force the issue. Don’t go trying to chase down the ideas and the inspiration – you’ll only scare them off. For me, I don’t let the creative juices themselves be the cause of my perspiration. Getting a good sweat usually helps get my imagination going, though. Then it just becomes a matter of getting those ideas written down before I can either second-guess myself or forget what they were entirely.
After that, the perspiration has to get poured into the pen and paper. If it doesn’t, what good is the inspiration anyway?