By Mary SanGiovanni
Perhaps the one question writers get asked most frequently is where we get our ideas. We are asked so often, in fact, that the inclination to make up funny, even snarky answers can be tempting. An ideas store in a small, rural town in the midwest, a secret well from which we draw up ideas on a full moon, a small altar in upstate NY where we bring sacrificial offerings, a mountaintop in Nepal with a small, fur-lined tent at its peak, a salesman offering ideas on the sly from the trunk of his car in a Hoboken, New Jersey parking lot…I could go on. We do have fun, we writers.
I’ve been thinking about the question lately, and in truth, despite how often we’re asked, it’s not really a bad question. Some people are mystified by the writing process – I get that. I’m continually amazed that people can hear music in their heads that never existed before and translate it through voice or another instrument so that I can hear it, too. I’m astounded by how some people can keep track of all the moving pieces of a movie and put those moving pieces together into one smoothly-run work of cinematic art. Engineers, astronomers, and theoretical physicists understand both another language on another plane of existence, as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to numbers that explain how the universe works. I guess writers so often balk at the question of where we get our ideas, which is essentially asking us how we do what we do, because we really don’t think too much about it. I believe writers worry deep, deep down that someday, that well may dry up some day, or the gods to which we make our offerings may stop listening, or that salesman will retire the same day that the little store in the midwest goes out of business. We worry that the Nepalese mountaintop will crumble and the ideas will stop coming, or will become somehow stunted and unworkable or too unwieldy for us, at our meager level of talent and experience, to be able to handle them. Sometimes writers worry about where they get their ideas because they really don’t know themselves, and so they don’t know if such a source may one day fail them.
The thing is, that mystical place from which we really do get our ideas – it’s an oasis in a dream desert decked out in velvet and 1970s big-bulb Christmas lights and run by magic squirrels – can’t go away, not really. And there are a couple of reasons for that, beyond the squirrels having stunningly sharp business acumen.
A wise woman (writer Linda Addison) once told a fledgling writer (me) that we never run out of ideas, because as writers, we have the inherent ability and natural tendency to speculate – to see the “what if” in the everyday, the unusual in the mundane, the dramatic in the ordinary. We don’t learn to “what if” because we’re writers; we are writers because we’re already predisposed to speculate. As long as we’re thinking, feeling, moving, experiencing creatures, we can’t run out of ideas because they’re all around us, all the time, like fruit in an orchard. We just need to be ready and receptive to plucking the ripe ones when we see them.
And sure, there may be a bit of a learning curve, but it’s not in finding ideas but in knowing what to do with them. What we learn to develop over time is trust in our instincts, discernment of commercial or creative feasibility of an idea, and maybe most importantly, perception so as not to dismiss or ignore that ember of an idea, to douse it before it has time to smolder properly.
An ember – that’s how an idea starts for us most of the time, as a glow in the dark of everyday minutiae, and as we go about doing the things we do, we subconsciously fan it into a little flame that eventually burns into an idea and catches on so completely that the only way to put it out is to get it on paper. Some ideas are lightning bolts, sizzling through the cosmos and striking us, nearly perfect and fully formed and blazing, right in the heart. Those kinds of ideas, maybe, are rarer, but idea lightning is not like regular lightning; it can and does frequently strike the same place twice (although, come to think of it, I think I read somewhere that real lightning can, too, but you get my metaphor).
So where do we really get our ideas? I’ll tell you.
In line at the bank or at the convenience store, as we look at the people ahead of us and consider what we’d do if one of them pulled out a gun or sprouted extra eyes and tentacles.
As we get on a train or plane and ponder what our fellow passengers may have managed to bring onboard with them besides their carry-ons.
When watching the news, while we worry about how many more freedoms can be lost, or how helpless we are against cruelty, senseless violence, tragedy, and horror, or how the country could possibly get any worse.
At those dull dinner parties, where we go so far as to hope an intelligent alien entity/zombie virus-spattered meteor crashes through the host’s ceiling.
In traffic on the highway, when all the cars are at a dead stop and we try to picture what kind of crashed spaceship waaaay up ahead is causing the holdup.
Watching our children play in the park and pondering the sinister implications if little Tommy by the swings had the ability to break people’s bones with his mind.
When we’re driving home at night and are acutely aware of being alone and remember a saying among cops we heard about that “Nothing good ever happens after midnight.”
After sex, when we think about what, exactly, people share during intimate moments, and whether that intimacy gives one person a key to a door in the other person that shouldn’t be opened.
At 2 a.m. while talking about philosophy and death and regret and love and loss with our closest friends over our sixth or seventh beers.
At 4 a.m. when we can’t sleep because of money worries and we’re listening to our partner snoring and wondering what we’d do if he started talking in his sleep about things we shouldn’t know.
In the shower, because really, if you’re not singing in the shower, you’re probably pondering some great mystery or other.
We do have fun, we writers. We’re a(n over)thinking, intensely feeling, little bit paranoid, little bit crazy bunch that carries both the weight and the wonder of the “what if” wherever we go. And the answer is that we get our ideas from everywhere, from encounters and experiences, because we’re made to do that. We get our ideas from being alive.