Sunday, January 17, 2010

Not Thinking About Writing

"Where do you get your ideas?" asks the interviewer to the famous writer.

The famous writer never knows how to respond.

Neither would I.

That's why I'm going to respond right now.

Being neither a famous writer nor even published yet, I am fortunate enough to rarely ever get this question asked of me. Nonetheless, it's the same question every artist will eventually get asked.

Where do you get ideas?

No one knows. We sure as hell don't.

I get stuck all the time. I can't think of a story. Or I have characters and no idea what happens to them. Or I have some itch of a story idea and no ideas to whom it happens. Or I just have some rough glimmer of a reflection of a shadow of an idea for a personality or a face or a setting or a mood or just a single sentence or a phrase or a title.

Umberto Eco woke up one day thinking that he "desired to murder a monk." And that is the genesis of The Name of the Rose.

I woke up one day thinking about a gunshot to the head. Or rather, the lack of a gunshot to the head, and I wrote one of my novellas beginning with a man who doesn't kill himself. I woke up another day with a song stuck in my head that wouldn't go away, and I wrote my other novella from its one word title, "Trains".

I was on the bus one day and thought of the phrase "close your eyes," which became "don't open your eyes," which became the first line of a piece of flash fiction I wrote this morning when I woke up with the words "I'd let you" in my head.

I was crossing the street one day when I thought of an image of a girl crossing the street. That was the genesis of my first (still-unpublished-but-working-on-the-synopsis) novel. That's all I started with. I thought of a girl crossing a street. I imagined her footfall on a street that was so cluttered with cigarette butts there was no curb anymore. I imagined her face and the bag she was carrying and the color of her hair and her eyes. I asked myself: where is she coming from? I didn't know. I asked her. She said she was coming from rehearsal. Rehearsing what? With whom? Where was she going? She told me these things. And I wrote the first chapter (and what would eventually become chapter two) of that novel.

I was playing my brother's guitar once. My brother lives in a trailer on an Indian reservation in the middle of the desert with his wife and my niece, and we're half-Zuni. I was putting the guitar away and I looked at the case. My thought was "lone guitar cases look strangely like coffins." Then I thought of a guitar case in the middle of the desert. How did it get there? Did someone bring it? Who? Why is he in the middle of the desert with a guitar? Where is he going? And answering those questions led me to writing what would become chapter three of that first novel.

Are you beginning to see a pattern here?

Ideas come from nowhere. They come from the ether. The appear when you least expect it. They're scared like mice, like I told you earlier. If you search too hard for an idea, try to capture one, try to take one, steal one, harness it, tame it before it wants to be found and're going to fail. Ideas will come to you when they're ready. You can't think yourself into brilliance. It just comes.

So where do you get your ideas? Don't think. Don't think about them. Don't try to come up with something spectacular. Don't try to think of what happens next.

Ask questions. Ask your characters what happens next. Ask yourself why the sky is blue. Ask yourself why the person across from you on the street is bending to untie his shoelace and re-lace it. Is he nervous? Is she postponing something she doesn't want to do? Is he trying to be late for a meeting? Is she obsessive compulsive and the knot wasn't perfect and she just noticed this? Is he trying to get himself fired? What else is she obsessive compulsive about? Why is he trying to get himself fired? How many times is she going to re-tie that damn shoe lace? Is he tired of his job or has he found something better or is he about to try to take over the world and become an evil supervillain? Is she a robot programmed only to tie and re-tie her shoes? Well maybe not, but you get the idea.

Don't think about writing. Thinking about writing is another way of saying you're not writing. Thinking about writing is a good way to do nothing. I know. I do it all the time.

Force yourself not to write. Force yourself not to think about writing at all. Go to a concert. Go to your favorite band's latest gig. Go to a movie. Go stand on the bridge and look at the river floating by under the sunset. Or the sunrise. Put your favorite record on in the dark, lie in the middle of the room, take a tab, and close your eyes. Walk through a crowded mall and people-watch. Sit outside a coffee shop and start a pack of cigarettes and don't start writing until you've finished it. Do something crazy. Do something out of character. Do something insane. Or something completely normal. Do something every day in a way you've never done it before. Take a different route. Take the same route but walk if you usually take the bus or take the bus if you usually walk.

Don't look for ideas. Put yourself where they'll come to you. Open your mind and clear it. Become idea bait. Become blank. Let them come to you instead. Play hard-to-get.

But whatever you do, don't try to think of them.

Do something else. Anything else.

Only if you don't build it.

They will come.

Then, when you get a nibble, just an image, a phrase, a word, anything.


What happens next? And listen to the answers.


  1. For the most part, I'm with you. Ideas come from the strangest places or from nowhere at all.

    That said, if I'm in a crunch and can't think of something, it is possible for me to "make" an idea happen. I'll throw pics of random people together and ask them to tell me their story. Doesn't usually take long for the conflicts and relationships to start showing up. That's how With The Band, The Next Move, The Distance Between Us, and a few others came into being.

  2. But you still asked them ;-)

    Don't give yourself credit for what your characters came up with!

    Oh wait. We're writers. That's what we do...

  3. hahaha yes, I still asked them. But I also went out, found them, threw them in a room, and made them my hostages before I did so. :D

  4. The bit about people watching struck a chord. I'm an avid people-watcher, and I often wonder how other artists get along without people-watching! There's just so much material in analytically watching people move through life.

  5. A professor of mine once said he liked to take a walk when he needed inspiration. He'd take a walk and just look at the people he passed.

    My work in progress right now was something I really wanted to deal with thematically, but I didn't want to come close to writing about the literal inspiration behind the themes. So I took a virtual walk. I looked at other people's blogs online, and just a sentence or two gave me a story - a story with almost no resemblance to the bloggers' own tales.

    Weird. I don't think I could have done that even the day before. It's just time for this story to be written, I guess.