Chasing Ideas

Where do you get your ideas? The question interviewed writers claim to hate. That always puzzles me. They write. They clearly get ideas. Why hate the question? Perhaps because the answers are so idiosyncratic and sometimes it seems the questioner is looking for a recipe?

I think it’s a fascinating question just because it’s fun to ponder. Think about where, how, when you get your own ideas if you create anything, anything at all.

I know, for me, there is no pattern, no logic, no reproducible formula. The only idea-generating advice I can think of is to let your mind relax, wander, meander and keep your eyes and ears open. Notice everything and let each thing you notice go to your mind’s playground.

It is entertaining though, to think about where ideas have come from for me. Many are sparked by memories, dreams, private griefs. When I was grieving for my father, a young boy sprang into my mind, fully formed, angry and confused, acting out at his father’s funeral, running literally roughshod over other graves and grave markers in his need to get away from the pain. His behavior horrified me, and got my attention. Now, none of that made its way into the finished novel. Not one bit of it except the sense of the boy’s character. But that’s where it all began. With the boy and his emotions.

A story can start with a character elbowing her way into your imagination, voicing her needs. Do you hear voices? I do. Cue Twilight Zone music.

A story/novel/essay can start with curiosity about something, anything, even an unimportant inanimate object. For example, I saw a photo of what looked like a pretty cut crystal bud vase, but it was open at both ends. Turns out, it was an old-timey crystal implement for refilling cups from the punch bowl. Submerge the crystal cylinder part way, stopper the top with your thumb, position over the punch cup and raise your thumb, releasing the liquid. Fascinating. Raised all sorts of possibilities in my imagination. A touch-free way to administer poison into someone’s drink (think small, small straw)? A magic talisman that, used cannily, transports you to a different universe? Possibilities, ideas.

An idea can come like a movie clip into the mind, fully formed, entertaining. I was in a public bathroom in a classy place looking for the wastebasket to discard my paper hand towel. There was a covered receptacle by the washbasin, but I couldn’t see a foot pedal to open it. Mystified, I leaned closer. Lo and behold, it was equipped with a motion sensor and opened like magic.

Well, then and there, I saw a young, autistic lad sitting on the floor of a family bathroom waving his hand repeatedly to open/close, open/close. His teenage sister walks by in the hall, thumbs tapping away at her smart phone, glances at her brother and yells down the stairs, “Mom, Stevie’s doing it again. He’s gonna wear out another battery.” And no, you can’t steal this idea. I may want to do something with it, because I can’t help wondering, and wanting to know Mom, the sister and little Stevie better.

Please, if you have time, comment to share a funny moment or odd idea that has popped into your head unlooked for. Share your thoughts about ways to encourage these magic moments to happen. I think these adventures and blips of imagination are so intriguing. Maybe that’s why I write.

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