Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

light bulb

Photo of this little light of mine by Michael W. May via flickr and licensed under CC 2.0

I’ve been to a lot of readings: poetry, fiction, memoir, etc. Seems like no matter what, if there’s a Q & A portion of the reading, someone will ask, “Where do you get your ideas?”

I understand why this always comes up. It comes up because no matter how imaginative we are, when we sit down to write, we are facing the blank page. Or the blank screen. Then, if you’re me, the ideas you’ve had about what to write fly out of your head and you stare at the page in despair. This is why I keep lists of things to write about.

Ah, you say, but where do the ideas on the list come from? Short answer: They come from you. Longer answer: You generate these ideas. Let’s say you want to write a short story. You’re not really sure what to write about. Get yourself a couple of index cards or a small notebook, and carry it in your pocket or purse along with a pen. Say to yourself out loud (c’mon, who’s going to hear you): “I am going to generate 5 ideas for a story today.” As you go about your day, you will see or hear or feel something that makes you think, Hmmm, what if… As in, Hmm, what if that woman reading the newspaper on the train is actually wanted for murder in another state? Why is she here? Who is looking for her, and what do they want? Or: what if the world was actually flat, like a pizza, and one day a miner discovers a whole world exists, upside down from his world?

One other thing about idea generation: don’t censor your ideas as you’re generating them. The minute you start thinking about how it’s a boring idea or nobody would want to read it is the minute your brain stops generating ideas. It’s like your imagination is a temperamental brat who doesn’t want to play any more and decides to take its ball and go home. So just write the ideas down without judgement. You can evaluate them later.

Another good idea-generating strategy is to do some menial task that doesn’t require a lot of thinking, like washing dishes or vacuuming or raking leaves. Something about these activities keeps the nervous part of the mind busy and then the idea-generator will pop out an idea. Keep that notepad and pen handy & write it down. Then finish the dishes!