Writing Inspiration: Where Do You Get All Your Ideas?

Ideas are everywhere.  You just got to look for them.

Let’s assume that’s true.  The whole world is basically an episode of Hoarders, chock-full from basement drain to gable vent of plot threads and character snippets, and we Wannabes have chosen to be too anesthetized to notice.  If the Ideas-Are-Everywhere theory were true, authors never would agree to book signings.  Imagine the conversations in the fan queue:

“We pay you to be creative, right?  So, I am supposed to take money out of my pocket and put it into yours, even though I saw that idea on page ninety-eight lying by the street lamp two blocks from your house?  Anybody could have picked it up.”

Stories would be as mysterious and magical as an egg timer.  (“I can’t believe it.  It went ding again!”)  Everything would be obvious.  Worse yet, people with even the slightest creative potential would lose their minds from idea overload.

No, wait!  This pen!  Do you realize what it is?  Or, no!  The desk lamp!  The desk lamp, yes or--Ohhhh. . . .  DUST MOTES!!!

It would be like reverse pantophobia.

Ideas would reach out and snag your toes at 3:00 a.m., when you are convinced the bathroom migrated to the wrong side of the house.

The strange thing is I also agree with the Ideas-Are-Everywhere theory.  When looking at the bibliography of writers like Robert Silverberg, it’s easy to imagine that he must be able to turn anything into a story, and in Silverberg’s case an excellent story. 

With the average person -- or at least me -- most ideas are crap, though.  Especially in their raw form.

JACK:  I suppose I ought to try to do some writing, first.
WENDY:  Any ideas, yet?
JACK:  Lots of ideas.  No good ones.

-- Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

If you have lots of ideas and no good ones, maybe you stopped too soon.  If everything you write feels stupid, it probably means the good ideas just haven’t arrived yet.  What you have written is still embryonic. 

Good ideas, the ones people are willing to pay for, are an evolution from simpler forms.  This doesn’t mean that once you get an idea, wait six months for those red pumps you saw in the closet to turn into the Ruby Slippers.  Inspiration happens all the time, usually when you are not thinking about the idea.  However, it is a balancing act.  If you don’t think about it at all, your subconscious discards the image as unimportant, but hammering the idea into form will bring on frustration and leave you with something that has been beaten to death.

Good ideas are not “gotten” they are developed. 

Have you ever taken an art class?  Students start with basic shapes.  Circles, squares, cylinders, cones.  Later, come shading and perspective.  It’s all good at this point to keep exploring the early stage of development.  Keep drawing those shapes and seeing them in all the objects around you until the concepts become natural.  This beginner-level, basic stage is important.  It is where you are going to want to give up.  With patience you see, not the idea, but your own thinking process quantum jump to the next stage and move closer into something that looks professional.  It feels almost like your IQ raises a few points.  This reminds me of my Typing I class in high school, back in the Precambrian era where we learned to type on these humming things that had no monitor and went clackety-clack!  We were proud of ourselves because we finally knew the location of every key on the keyboard.  The instructor reminded us, however, that knowing the keyboard did not make us typists.  “Right now,” he said, “you still have to make a conscious effort to press each key.  In time, the movement will become automatic and you will be typing words instead of individual letters.”

Back to the art class analogy.  You’ve got the basic shapes down.  Circles easily become spheres on paper.  Trees and the human form are full of cylinders and cones.  Then, someone tells you that light coming into a room behaves a little like water.  Really?  That is a more sophisticated concept than “the farthest surface from the light is the darkest.”  You can now use that information.  Before it might have been interesting but was not yet useful as a tool.  Your understanding broadens and it too becomes more sophisticated. 

Studying color, you learn that the darkest objects are the closest to your eye and the farthest are pale because you are looking at them through more air.  It makes sense.  Your understanding is evolving again.  Even the way you touch the paper changes, because now the portrait is so close to finished that the lightest whisper-touch of the pencil makes the difference in the image looking off or looking real.

Ideas develop in the same way, as a series of passes.  Some passes rake away debris.  Others bring out new aspects.  Layer after layer, the image sharpens and becomes unique and interesting, until someone says, “How did you do that?  Where do you get all your ideas?”

The reason this question annoys so many successful writers is because it is so difficult to answer.  It would take too long for them to explain about all the in-between steps.  Most writers probably don’t remember them anyway.  They simply made the strokes over and over again, slowly moving the lines until they looked right, darkening the contrast until it had depth.  At some point they realize, “Wow, that’s good.  It looks real.”

Work in layers.  

Related posts on inspiration:


What Funny and Frightening Have in Common
Writing: Don't Waste Your Time  

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