>I do hate to open with a caveat and a disclaimer, but as I write this it just becomes more obvious to me that I don’t have a tidy thesis to wrap the topic up in. So, the caveat: if you’re looking for an absolute answer to this question, I don’t know if I actually get there. Perhaps this is just a case of needing to think out loud so I could figure some of these things out for myself as well. I’m happy to have you along for the journey if it’s of interest to you.
A friend recently asked, “How do YOU think of stories? Whenever I try, I either can’t think of anything, or I think of stories from my favorite books and movies. It’s very daunting to me to create a plot!”
Before I begin, let me offer my disclaimer – having me answer this question is at best counter-intuitive (I’m not that productive) and at worst, a case of me talking about something I’m still not very good at. The internet has many many resources, some free, some not, from others who are probably more qualified than I to write about this (I’ll list several at the end). But I’m going to continue anyway, because I LIKE being creative and maybe my experience – just being a regular person who’s figured some of this out – will help you along as well. I wrote poetry and doodled little water color drawings and thought of nifty things to build and decorate with during my last year or two of high school and for a few years after. I worried constantly about why my attempts to activate my creativity were so unreliable but still managed to hobble along through college and for a few years after. Then I got married, got a job, had kids and literally, within six or seven months of having my second child I pretty much stopped writing except for periodic, panicked passages in my journals about how I wished I could write, how I feared I didn’t qualify as a poet any more (damn T.S. Eliot anyway) and how I just didn’t know what to do with myself.
Yet I enjoy thinking about how we think, though it tends to be a slippery subject – and I’m admittedly involved in a regular life that has only a little room for dreamy gazing and contemplation of the intersections of epistemology, psychology, and creativity – so it’s taken me a while to be able to see what appears like fish, something just under the surface, and to be able to describe, based on fleeting glimpses, flashes of tails and scales and all. But I’ve been, if not sidetracked (from the work of creating), at least educationally mesmerized by the topic of creativity and how to accept its demands and enhance its undertakings. I’ve found that a lot of other people are fishing as well. Being a process-oriented person, this has been a fascinating line of enquiry both for the pleasure at uncovering the diversity of materials and explanations on this topic and for the processes that exist for cultivating creativity (some of which I’ve been playing with). So, having established my reasons for undertaking this topic, let’s get down to business.
From my friend’s question I found actually two questions – one is her direct request, how do you create something big, like a book, like an entire plot? The other is more subtle, is the same question, but at a more nuanced level – where do ideas come from? It’s this second one that I’m going to look at first.
Where do ideas come from?
I wonder how many worried people have asked this question of how many prolific others. Even me, I’ve thought it, even if I haven’t asked it. A lot of artists and writers have answered this question impatiently (see below, #1) – like they’re sick of it, like it’s a stupid question. But it’s not a stupid question because it indicates something about how we order or train our natural selves in order to fit, “normally” into a society which looks askance at creativity unless it is conventionally productive, unless it maintains a form that doesn’t shake things up too much or manages to meet a certain radical-yet-acceptable norm.
But first, the “back of my mind,” (aka my unconscious, my Muse-mind, my inner paint-smeared child) is jumping up and down, shrieking, “I know! I know where they come from! Ooo! Ooo! I know!”
And so I have to go here first. “They’re dropped on the road by ravens, they hide under big floppy green leaves, get kicked up by car tires, hide between notes of music, show up at the curbs of city sidewalks, skulk behind doors, drift with memories like dandelion puffs and are mistakenly stirred into soup. They trip you on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, sit in the passenger seat of your car until the city finally drops away and the silent road curves and winds and they loosen from their seat belts and tumble into your lap, they stretch on spiders webs across your doorway and get caught in your hair where you absentmindedly brush them off. They get carried in on the soles of your friends’ shoes and perch, poised on the season’s first berries, waiting for you to be ready to taste. They’re everywhere.”
Now at this point, the reasonable and the reasonably intimidated person stops and thinks, “Well, if they’re everywhere, why aren’t I finding them? How is it that I’m deficient?” and to answer that we have to probe a little deeper.
If they’re everywhere, but they’re too elusive and hard to spot, maybe the more appropriate questions are, “How do you recognize ideas? How do you relate to them? How do you cultivate them?”
… I’ll continue with these questions in the next “installment” – hopefully within a day or two.
#1: I’m a fan of Catherynne M. Valente’s writing (I really like the very adult but dreamy and poetic and rich Palimpsest, as well as a number of her essays) but here’s what she says, when asked “Where do your ideas come from?” “Seriously? It takes some balls to ask that question since every writer in history in on record saying “Shut up.” They come from electrical impulses in my brain-meats.” Ok, I admit, I’m going to rain on the snark in that answer, with the hope that my lengthy answer in this and related posts doesn’t make anyone feel stupid for wondering where ideas come from.
* both paintings are by John William Waterhouse.
>There’s something to be said for letting an idea mature. If I’d taken the G.O.T.S. idea as a short story, as I’d first wanted, it might have worked, though now that it’s developing and deepening, I don’t know how it would have turned out. I made things difficult for myself last night, but it’s such a yummy difficult-ness, that I don’t mind. Now I have daydream fodder, and twistyturns to mull on and plot possibilities to figure out. Maybe that’s the secret ingredient to what makes writing so much fun.
I doubt that it’ll turn into anything resembling this, but my MC will be discovering something astounding about the book her uncle gave her. Maybe I’d better start improving my drawing skills.