Image source: Flickr CC / vestman
So often in interviews and during question time at literary events, writers are asked where they get their ideas. It’s one of the constants of being a storyteller. There are books on it, talks and lectures, blog posts and articles, discussion panels and courses.
Coming up with ideas is clearly a huge source of anxiety for people who want to write. All writers have been asked the question, and everyone seems to have a different answer.
Neil Gaiman tells people the simple truth — that he gets them out of his head. Michael A Banks says ‘we grow them naturally’. Robin McKinley has no idea where her ideas come from. Christina Dodd believes that she gets her ideas ‘from some fabulous cosmic endless font of creativity which God has created’. Sounds legit. Richard Thomas is more specfic, saying his ideas come from thinking about what‑ifs, his personal issues, and tapping into emotional truths that resonate with him.
It doesn’t matter much what the answers are; questioners are always left unsatisfied.
‘They look unhappy,’ Gaiman writes. ‘As if I'm trying to slip a fast one past them. As if there's a huge secret, and, for reasons of my own, I'm not telling them how it's done.’
A lot of people seem to have come to the conclusion that accessing ideas that are worthy of exploring in words is some sort of mysterious, mystical process. People who aren’t experienced at writing something to completion often have a vision of the process of creation being an ecstatic experience: words come pouring out in fully-formed sentences that express with great precision what is in the writer’s heart and mind. And then these magically inspired words go on to speak directly to the hearts and minds of readers everywhere.
Those who ask where writers get their ideas want to know how to access an idea that inspires them into an ecstasy of creation. Unfortunately, working on writing projects is often a lot like working on a school essay: you have a topic, a word limit, and a due date. You write it all the night before it’s due by simply sitting down and grinding out word after word, until it is done and says more or less what you thought you wanted to say in the first place.
The problem is, people don’t ask where writers get their ideas because they’re interested in the source of that writer’s ideas. They ask because they want to know where they can get ideas themselves. They have a yearning to tell stories and explore ideas, but don’t have anything to say.
Or at least they think they don’t.
Each of us is shaped by unique experiences. We have our own reactions to all the many things that could happen in the world, and within and between people.
We all have things to say that only we are capable of saying. The people who write those novels and screenplays and essays and poems that create common ground and start arguments, that unsettle and comfort, terrify and arouse and incite curiosity; those people know this.
Not only do they know this, but they also believe that their ideas are worthy of writing about. When you trust that what you have to say is worthy of writing (and reading) about, thinking of ideas stops causing anxiety.
We all have things we worry and wonder about. Think of yours. Make them into stories.
Rather than sitting and staring at a blank page, trying to think of something to say, sit down with your writing tools, either with something you’re itching to say, or to use the process of writing to work out a thought, ask yourself questions, have a conversation with a character, or just to bitch about how you don’t know where to start.
Thinking and writing are linked and writing helps you have thoughts you might not get to otherwise. You can write your ideas into existence. Every piece of writing you do doesn’t have to be for public consumption.
And if none of that works, do something else. All brands of creative types, from business people to sculptors, find that ideas come when they’re not really trying to think of them. Instead, the ideas come while the creator’s doing something that gives their mind space to explore itself: showering, jogging, cooking.
Of course, once you have an idea, then you actually have to write the thing.
But first, just let your ideas come. Trust that what you have to say is worth saying.
Sarah Jansen is an Australian arts worker, writer and communications professional.
She works through her events and marketing consultancy Scribble Creative and helps to run the Melbourne Literary Salon. She has worked with the Emerging Writers’ Festival, Freeplay independent games festival, The Edge, Pozible, Brisbane Festival, Brisbane International Film Festival, Straight Out Of Brisbane, This Is Not Art, and Vibewire.
Sarah’s writing has been published in Lip magazine, We Matter Media, Vibewire.net, in Vignette Press’s Mini Shots series and Sex Mook anthology, Filter magazine, the Zahmoo blog, The Edge, Musings of an Inappropriate Woman, and her blog, Opinionate.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.