Where Do Ideas Come From?
I’ve started teaching creative writing recently and the question I’m most often asked by new writers is where story ideas come from. I wish I could give them the answer they desperately want: that there’s an Aldi or Costco for story lines, somewhere writers in the know go to get stocked up. The real answer, of course, is that there is no answer to this question, or, more accurately, that there are so many answers as to make it redundant.
However, I always try to honour this request with some kind of response.
“First you have to go on a train trip from Manchester to London,” I tell them, “stare out of the window and if you’re lucky a character might be delivered to you fully formed, complete with glasses and a lightning scar; or else you could try listening to Muse and going to sleep. Then they might visit you in a dream — a sparkling vampire lying next to an ordinary girl in the woods.”
I have a little rant, then, about how the stories behind famous stories often seem less believable than the stories themselves. And afterwards I map out some of the strange and random ways the seeds of stories are sown (for me, at least).
Ideas might come from childhood memories: a Harold Melvin song your mother played on loop whenever she was tipsy; a friend you had when you were six whose third finger was missing; another who had a compulsion to touch ladies legs whenever they wore nylons; the sound of a great aunt’s dentures when she ate; watching your grandfather gut a rabbit. Perhaps these are your memories. Perhaps they are memories someone else told you. Get confused. Remember them as your own.
Ideas might come from snippets of overheard conversation: the homeless man who sidled up to you at the butcher’s window to whisper “meat is murder”; teenage girls raving to each other about how much they loved books – “not to read, just for decoration”. Or they might be sparked by oddly lyrical moments in ordinary exchanges that seem to blaze like a flare to any writer: the recently divorced friend who told you her hair was falling out and “tumbleweeding into empty corners of the house”; your mum describing the noses of preschoolers shining with “green candles of snot” in a wintertime playground. No, really, it’s not stealing. It’s listening. It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to. (Yes, I just stole that from Jim Jarmusch, who stole it from Jean Luc Godard.)
And ideas might come from solitary images: a photo you took of a tree growing from the waters of Lake Wanaka; a baby with a harelip on the 156 bus; the giant handprints you stretched on tiptoes to reach as a child in the Split Mountain at Gaeta, Italy; kids burying a fallen magpie chick under a pile of autumn leaves.
Ideas are all around us, we just have to train our ears to them, catch them in a notebook before they slip through our fingers. Ideas are coddled deep within us; we just have to tempt them to the surface. Ideas can even grate sometimes, whining for attention, the needle of our minds getting stuck in the groove of that odd bit of song, or poetry, that random image. We just need to ask why.
Sometimes several of these fragments might collide and begin to meld. But it’s only when we start asking questions about our notes, our little fixations that we begin to form a plot, to frame a story. That’s when we need to daydream, get bored, hang out the washing, groom the dog, miss some deadlines, get desperate. That’s when the hard part happens. Because ideas are not the hard part, ideas are not the question. Writing one word after another, making it believable, getting blood into your characters, realism into your setting and depth in your dialogue —that’s the hard part.
Image credit: Pixabay