Saturday, March 10, 2007

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

What writer hasn't been asked that?

You can answer flippantly ("Anonymous e-mails!"). You can stumble around and blather for a while, sounding remarkably confused about the matter. You can say, "From everywhere, from the news, from reading." None of those answers will satisfy the non-writer who asked the question.

And, yes, the questioner is not a writer, although he may think he is. If he were, he'd understand where you get your ideas.

More to the point, he'd understand that that question betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what motivates a writer.

A writer isn't someone who wants to have written or someone who is fascinated by the imagined glamor of the writer's life and therefore decides to become one. "Some day, when I have the time, I'm going to write a book." I bet you've heard that one, too. Odds are, people who say that will never write that book. Somehow, they'll never have the time. Or they'll have the time, but when they try writing a book, they'll realize that writing consists of lots of sitting down and, well, writing. It ain't glamor. It's words. Lots of them.

Writers don't decide to become writers and then start searching for ideas. Writers are people who keep getting ideas and feel driven to express them in writing, and so they become writers. The ideas drive the writing, and not the other way around.

Well, that's the way it is for me, anyway. I spent my childhood in a fantasy world - much more interesting than the material world outside my head - and very soon wanted to start writing my daydreams down. Oh, and of course I read oodles, so I knew that you can write your daydreams down and have other people read them. Not that I knew about the nature of the publishing biz, back then. It's surely a good thing that I didn't.

I wrote a longish essay on my Web site about why we write. It's from a different perspective than the above.


Chris said...

Hmm. I just figured I craved the validation of strangers.

It's true, though, that the leap from reader to writer is borne of persistent ideas. I suppose someone more romantic than I would call it their Muse. Really, I think it's an idea that just won't shut up. It was for me at least -- I sat down and started writing, the whole time thinking "There -- are you happy now?"

David said...

The idea that won't shut up! I like that.

Dorothy said...

It's crazy how these ideas pop in our heads and we can't wait to write them's an obsession but we love it. ;o)

David said...

Hi, Dorothy!

Welcome to the very best blog among all the blogs I write.

The obsession is something non-writers really don't get. They look at you strangely if you talk about it too much. I suppose that's one reason so many of us have started maintaining blogs and visiting the blogs of other writers. "My God! I'm not alone!"

Chris said...

It's funny you mention the "I'm not alone!" aspect of blogging, because back in the wee early days of my blog, I told a story about being called down to the principal's office for a story I'd written back in grade school. Dorothy stopped by and posted a lovely comment about a similar experience, in the process bringing a few other folks along. If I'm not mistaken, she was my first-ever commenter! (Also, she called me charming, so she's always nice to have around in MY book.)

Gary said...

To me, an idea is the preliminary sketch of a painting. The glory of the effort is watching your art unfold before you.

Bewildering as it may seem to non-writers, writing is a wonderful journey of discovery that invariably takes me places I never dreamed I might visit.

The idea is the simple commitment of deciding to go somewhere, and the story is the trip the words take me on -- ultimately paying out huge dividends in intellectual and emotional capital that might result in an evermore fascinating journey next go-round.

In short, just decide to travel and the world unfolds before you and ideas rush in to meet the need.

Might appear trite to some, but it's a great rush for me and seems to satisfy my craving for discovery.

Now how fun is that?

David said...

Dorothy is obviously a discriminating person with fine taste in blogs.

Gary, I like the painting comparison.

It seems odd to me that movies portray writers as desperately searching for ideas for their books but then producing the actual books in no time at all. I've never written a script, but I assume that there, too, the idea is the easy part and the work and creativity lie in the production of the finished script. So why don't movie scriptwriters realize that writing novels is like that, too? Maybe they know that, but they think the audience will get bored if they depict the process realistically.

Well, it is boring from the outside, no matter how exciting it is from within.

gary said...

"Well, it is boring from the outside, no matter how exciting it is from within."

Well said. I've always been bored by any discipline that disengages me. It's much like your love of Opera and my neglect of it. I understand the performance structurally, but have no appreciation for Opera's intricacies, because it remains forever formal which disrupts my need for freer forms of expression.

It's probably much the same for people who can't relate to the beauty realized through the creative placement of words. The discipline of writing is perhaps too pedantic and extraordinary to suitably engage them. But at least I appreciate the technical mastery of Opera.

For me, a well played Jazz line improvised on the moment to never again incarnate is a beauty all its own.

Irony is, more people probably appreciate Opera than Jazz.

I'm not really certain what that says about me.

Maybe it's best I don't know.

David said...


That's an interesting discussion of jazz vs. opera, etc.

I suppose that to some extent it is the formal structure and predictability of opera that I like, vs. most 20th-Century classical/serious/concert music, which I tend to loathe. Mostly, though, for grand opera it's the stupendously wonderful romantic melodies sung humongously by humongous, beautiful voices.

For me, I think that art songs fit more in the category of disciplined, structured performances where I am transported by a subtle performance.

I suspect that far more people appreciate jazz than opera. I do know that opera houses are constantly moaning about their imminent demise (although I did see something somewhere about today's kids suddenly turning to opera -- a hopeful and very surprising development). I Googled for numbers and couldn't find much except for a 2002 report from the NEA which says that out of a total adult population of 205.9 million, 10.8% attended a jazz performance that year, 11.6% a classical music performance, and 3.2% an opera.

gary said...

Interesting percentages, those! I'm not surprised classical outdraws jazz. But I'm truly shocked so few people attend opera.

You present a most convincing case for the art form. Maybe I'll climb off my high horse and attend a rousing performance one day. Might do me a world of good.

I can see myself caught up in the spectacle of it all -- crashing cymbals, thundering tympani, the guttural edginess of the woodwinds mixed with hot brass blasting daggers through the concert hall, the entire mix tempered serenely by the bittersweet peal of lyrical strings. And then in come the beautiful voices. My, but it really does sound magnificent.

Never actually considered the grandness of the experience. Your passion for it shows and has piqued my interest! Further, attending a concert without identifying so closely with the performers might set my ears apart and provide a more objective encounter. Will they let me in in blue jeans? Aw, what the heck. I might even splurge on some Dockers.

Seriously, you do make it sound worthwhile -- if not memorable!