I have written often about the three questions invariably asked of authors. The first two engender simple and straightforward answers: “When do you write?” A simple answer suffices marking the time of day; the second question is “How do you write?”
Perhaps a bit of embellishment is needed on that one, although many of the writers I have talked with reveal their preference for the computer, with some still hacking away on old manual or electric typewriters or writing by hand. Not that it really matters in terms of quality. I use a computer.
The third and last question is “Where do you get your ideas?”
I have often answered vaguely and politely offering a kind of generic explanation like “I get my ideas from engaging with people like yourself.”
Somehow, I sense that I have never done justice to that answer, although I do have a very specific recall of how I got the idea for each of my many novels, short stories, plays and poems. Still, the most accurate answer is so deeply self-involved and opinionated that it might be severely off-putting and baffling to the questioner. Nevertheless, now that I am at a safe distance from the questioner, I’ll give it a try.
In general, the most powerful ideas come from interaction with people, perhaps a word, a sentence, a gesture, a reminder of an event deep in my past that ignites a spark in the imagination and suggests a narrative, an environment, or a cast of characters. Remember that smell of a cake that set off Proust’s majestic series of novels.
Another path is through information that enters the mind through the vast tsunami of information that confront us at every turn through books, newspapers, magazines, a steady unstoppable stream that washes over us relentlessly. Tolstoy got his idea for Anna Karenina from a newspaper item.
Rarely do these ideas spring whole into the mind. Often, they arrive through the subconscious network of tunnels configured as a spider web in one’s personal zeitgeist. The writer of the imagination climbs the web foothold by handhold, cautiously finding his or her way into a conscious and orderly narrative that deals with the ultimate story question: what happens next?
Getting confused? Let’s plod ahead.
To make the explanation more complicated, my intuition tells me there is even more to it than that. There is an act of will involved. I have learned that a serious full-time career writer of works of the imagination, a category in which I humbly include myself, has in his or her imaginary DNA, or through force of habit, a kind of built-in antenna that is forever whirling around in mind space looking for story ideas.
Because I believe this implicitly, I have deliberately fashioned my life to give me maximum exposure to engage with people and information with aggressive intent. I explore through my personal involvement with other people meaningful conversation that might open doors in the subconscious mind. I tell myself I am listening carefully, perhaps wondering instead what the speaker is really thinking. I tell myself I am observing movement, facial expressions, intonation, hardly knowing if my conscious will is realizing my intent.
In this deliberate hunt for story ideas, I belong to small groups that provide clashing ideas through conversation, argument and insight. For example I am enlisted in a group considering religion, The Bible and the Talmud, a group that deals with innovation, a group that deals with the great thinkers of philosophy and literature, and a small group of Irishmen who meet every month, a rare race of miraculous storytellers. I devour books and newspapers like a hungry lioness searching for prey to feed the pride.
Habit has made this search an addiction which I freely acknowledge, knowing that it is impossible to truly explain the artistic urge and the mysteries of creation. There are those that say that there is a limited number of story ideas available and all stories are just reworkings of these ideas, clichés painted in ever different colors. Perhaps they are correct.
Other fiction authors surely have different explanations on how they get their ideas. Some may require solitude and prefer exploring the sole implications of their own biographies and family histories rather than engaging with strangers and look to the natural world alone for their inspiration. After all, I can only speak for myself.
So, there is my latest attempt to answer that third question. Now you know why most authors and I take the easy way out.