Literary audiences can’t help asking, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ It’s as if an idea is a magic bean: something precious from which stories grow. A thing that can be got, somewhere.
Neil Gaiman says people don’t like it when he reveals, truthfully, that his ideas are made up in his head. ‘They look unhappy, as if I’m trying to slip a fast one past them,’ Gaiman writes on his website. ‘As if there is a huge secret, and, for reasons of my own, I’m not telling them how it’s done.’
In a 1987 essay, promisingly titled ‘Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?’, Ursula Le Guin suggests that we use the term ‘idea’ as a synecdoche for the complicated, obscure process of writing, which ‘may be a matter of mood, resonances, mental glimpses, voices, emotions, visions, dreams, anything. It is different in every writer, and in many of us it is different every time.’
For Le Guin, this ‘inceptive state or story-beginning phase’ arises ‘from psychic contents that have become unavailable to the conscious mind’. Writers glimpse the edges of stories in dreams and idle thoughts, or in hunches and desires. Learning to realise you are having an idea is a kind of everyday mindfulness.
Whenever I’ve taught writing, I’ve invited my students to notice their reactions – amusement, surprise, horror, melancholy, even annoyance. I’m especially aware of my playful impulses: throwaway jokes can contain something worthwhile. Then there is empathy: considering the humanity of people who are separated from me by time, place, opportunity or values.
I’m a strong believer in curiosity: noticing details of my surroundings, wondering how things came to be, asking what might be different. And I try to observe patterns and serendipitous resemblances. Lawrence Weschler, in his book Everything that Rises, calls these ‘convergences’ – ‘ostensibly dissimilar things that point to each other’.
George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo was inspired by a piece of political gossip. After Abraham Lincoln’s beloved son Willie died in 1862, the grief-stricken president was rumoured to have snuck into the crypt at night to cradle the body. ‘An image spontaneously leapt into my mind,’ Saunders recalled in The Guardian in March 2017 – ‘a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà.’
Saunders’ Guardian essay offers the best explanation of the writing process I’ve ever read. For Saunders, an idea isn’t a ‘clear-cut intention’ from which the story proceeds logically. Rather, writing is ‘a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference’, like an optometrist asking, ‘Is it better like this? Or like this?’
I discovered a similarly iterative approach to ideas when I studied copywriting at university. During the concept-development phase of a campaign, I would sketch dozens of ways to express a ‘single-minded proposition’ – the key reason why the target audience should buy the product. I was trawling for a Big Idea.
In his influential book Ogilvy on Advertising, real-life Mad Man David Ogilvy wrote that a Big Idea should instantly feel right. It should make you gasp; make you wish you had thought of it yourself. It should resonate for decades, like Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ or Victoria Bitter’s ‘hard-earned thirst’. So I practised making little ideas feel bigger, inviting people to know more.
Treating ideas as a plentiful, renewable resource has served me well as a freelance journalist. I don’t take it personally when editors reject my pitches, because I trust my ability to come up with more. When I feel stumped (‘What am I going to write about for my Overland column?’) I cast my mind out like a net, and it always pulls up something – an image, a pattern, an observation, a fragment of experience.
The trouble is, I have too many ideas. Many of my tweets begin with ‘I’d like to write about …’ Something will spark my imagination and begin to cohere into an essay or blog post. I’ll chase my curiosity down wormholes of arcana, immersing myself in research, making connections, turning over puzzle pieces.
When stories are only ideas, when they exist purely as possibilities, they are intensely pleasurable. But bringing them clearly into words is dreary and exhausting work. As Gaiman observes, ‘hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you’re trying to build: making it interesting, making it new.’ Writers’ festival audiences don’t consider this labour when they ask where ideas come from.
I’ve got about ten potential book ideas, and I’m overwhelmed by the different varieties of intellectual labour each would require. A book represents a daunting commitment to an idea. Saunders, a celebrated short-story writer, brooded on Lincoln in the Bardo for more than twenty years, ‘too scared to try something that seemed so profound’, worried he couldn’t sustain it over a novel’s length.
But, as Saunders discovered, an idea is a promise, not a commodity. It’s a presence you sense both within and beyond yourself: ‘something consistent, wilful, and benevolent, that seems to have a plan, which seems to be: to lead you to your own higher ground.’
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