Where do you get your ideas? How do you know it’s an idea worth writing about?
Last week, I had the pleasure and honor of working with a fantastic group of young writers at the The University of Iowa’s IWP Between the Lines program, as well as my fabulously talented group at Hopkins, and the question came up in both workshops, about ideas and finding ideas to write and how to know if the idea you’ve come up with is worth spending days, weeks, months, or years writing?
This is really more of a writer question than an editor question, and so I thought to pick another question this week, but then, I thought better of it. One of the beautiful facets of indie presses is they are generally run and edited by writers, writerly people, artists at heart, as opposed to commercially-minded editors, and so the question as to writing is not only appropriate but interesting, I think. Everyone has a “Where do you get your ideas?” line and answer. Right? Might as well have at it.
So how do you know if an idea is worth spending so much time on? Well, the truth is, you don’t. At least I don’t. I’m never sure of anything. I am constantly fighting with myself and am certain I’m never writing anything worth a damn. I search for the necessity of the story and hope it reveals itself along the way, if I’m lucky. We’re all there, really, right? I often go back to Flannery O’Connor and her organics of structure and the concept of story revealing itself to the writer. But sometimes, it is true, you fall in love with an idea early on and it happens to work. It could be a gorgeous idea or an ugly idea or something that will lurk beneath your bed idea for years as you write it, but it’s such a part of you and your craft, once conceived, that to abandon it would be heresy.
I tend to write heresy. It’s true. Where some people may have cute little cherub children inside, I have a goth girl with shotgun and whip and a copy of Blood Meridian and probably a whoopee cushion, too. I don’t mind spending time with concepts some people wouldn’t care to digest for days, weeks, months, years, but if you know that about me, and/or about yourself, then we can go forward. If you prefer a lighter aesthetic, then take the following in relativity.
When I’m looking for ideas I go to words from whom I’ve been fortunate to study. I had some amazing instructors and mentors in program. Alice McDermott, more than once, gave this advice. “Follow the fun” then she sent me to a bookstore for Alice Munro collections, and I came back with every collection the store had, which was about six, I think. I’ve been following fun and Alice Munro ever since. I should qualify. For me the fun might be quite a bit darker than for someone else. For me the fun is in the analyses of the dark and the darkly comedic, which isn’t always “fun” in a proverbial sense, though, it is certainly fun in an intellectual sense.
Another instructor, Richard Peabody, encouraged me to write full out. Don’t hold back. Nothing out of bounds. Then he gave me a stack of books that taught me just how mild-mannered I was and how much I had to learn about full out bad ass writing, and I’ve never been the same since. Now, with these impossible standards, Alice Munro, bad ass writers like Eurydice and Ackers, I simply try to fail as best I can. I’ve already lost. It’s not a competition and so the fun is in the process of it, not the product. With that said, writing months of trashcan material is as necessary and helpful to me as the five pages of published. I write the ideas that don’t do much and I write the ones that seem to do more. I file them away.
So specifics: I generally take a kernel of what I know, a bad moment, an experience. Something that really makes me cringe at life. Then I take something that makes me cringe at myself. Something I’m not proud of. Something that would, as Hemingway said, open a vein and bleed me out on the page. I try to let the bad and the cringe marinate a bit, weave into each other. If they amalgamate, sometimes they don’t, but if they do, I start considering the different facets. Often the easier facets of the dark, cringe moments are serious and analytical, right? So I strive to see the situation or scene from another perspective. If I can see the dark, cringe moment from some humorous place, then I can probably be assured the marination has two things…
1. Some dramatic depth and possibility.
2. Some level of objectification.
Until I can separate myself from these moments of experience, either observed or personal, enough to see them from an objective perspective, an opposites aesthetic — horrific vs. humorous, debilitating vs. encouraging, — I’m probably not far enough from the subject to write it from a craft perspective versus a personal perspective, and so it’s not a story yet, it’s simply an experience observed or personal. I’m too close to it still. But once that objectivity takes over, the fiction and details and story unfold faster than I can record it, and it’s no longer my story, it’s the characters’ story. And the ideas I had have no relation to the story at all. And I’m no longer in control of the story, I’m simply writing it. This is the gotcha moment for me. And essentially, I didn’t conceive of it at all. It grew organically from several entities all marinating together. So, I guess the answer to where do I get my ideas is I don’t get them. They grow and I hope I’m in the right place and frame of mind to accept them when they present themselves.
Or maybe I’m just full of it. Maybe I pick them off a tree.
The editor in me says, I don’t care where you get your ideas. I only care that they mean everything to you as you write them. I want to read stories written into wee hours of the morning because they were so necessary and ripe and screaming for attention.
Now, quid pro quo: How do you come up with your ideas?