Several months ago, I wrote a guest post for Timothy Hallinan’s fine blog regarding the “writer’s process.” Those last two words are in quotation marks because, as all of us here clearly know, there’s no such thing as a singular “writer’s process.” Every writer’s process — his way of getting words on paper so that they form a publishable manuscript — is different. Asking me to describe “the” writer’s process is like asking all the Iron Chefs how to make a soufflé with the expectation of getting only one answer.
Anyway, one of the areas I touched upon in my post for Tim’s blog (Tim’s one hell of a writer, by the way; his novel THE QUEEN OF PATPONG is not to be missed) was where we writers get our ideas. Big surprise that, huh? Because that’s always the first thing readers and others who don’t write for a living want to know: Where the hell do we find all those incredible stories?
The question is usually posed as if the answer must be some deep, dark secret. I think what the people who pose it are generally envisioning is a vast network of hidden depositories — lockboxes that only we writers know exist — in which Great Ideas are kept. We surf to the Great Ideas website, login using our writers-only password, find a lockbox nearby and then slink off under cover of night to open the box and withdraw the Great Idea inside.
Voila! Our next book is practically in the can!
(Oh, if it were only that simple. . .)
Naturally, there is no such network of lockboxes. There are no hidden Great Ideas. All our Great Ideas are right there out in the open for anyone and everyone to see. Here’s how I explained what I mean in my post for Tim’s blog:
A Non-Writer and a Writer are walking down the street. Both take note of a mismatched pair of running shoes dangling from their bound laces over the back of a vacant bus bench.
The Non-Writer thinks (if he or she thinks anything at all):
“Hmm. That’s funny. I wonder what that’s about?”
The Writer thinks:
“An all-clear sign left by one criminal conspirator for another.”
“A poor man training for his last marathon before cancer takes his life has just boarded a bus and left his only pair of running shoes behind.”
“A grifter’s wife, throwing his worthless ass out again, has just tossed his clothes out of the window of their fourth-floor apartment, starting with shoes she’s been careful to tie up in mismatched pairs just to twist the knife.”
You see? And none of this is particularly deliberate. It just happens. It’s how our minds work. We see or read something that piques our curiosity and runaway extrapolation occurs. Mind you, it isn’t always great extrapolation (as the three examples above probably indicate), but every now and then, something genuinely wonderful results from it.
So where do I get my ideas? Everywhere. The thing is, they’re only “ideas” because, as a writer, I’m able to perceive them as such; what the Non-Writer dismisses as mere background noise I latch onto as seedlings that could grow stories in a hundred different directions.
I was thinking about all this yesterday during my thrice-weekly bike ride to the gym, because I caught myself finding Great Ideas in damn near everything and everyone I encountered. Such as:
- Two police cars, one unmarked, the other a black-and-white, splitting off to cruise my ‘hood in two different directions.
My first thought: Watch one of them pull me over. On my bike. Always trying to keep the Black Man down.
(Well, okay, this wasn’t a Great Idea, it was just paranoia. And no, neither cop gave me a second look.)
But my NEXT first thought was:
They’re after the wrong guy. Somebody’s called in a false report, claiming they’ve witnessed a crime that never actually occurred, because. . .
- A long line of cars waiting at a Metro line rail crossing for a train that, it seems, is never going to come.
My first thought: Persons unknown have hacked into the Metro transit system, and this harmless traffic snarl is just a dry run for. . .
- Two old men, one at least twenty years older than the other, circling a car for sale sitting in a dry cleaner’s parking lot: a classic, perfectly restored ’64 Chevy Malibu.
My first thought: They’re father and son, and the son intends to gift the car to the old man because it reminds them both of the son’s mother, who. . .
- A homeless man stretched out on the sidewalk, unkempt but totally coherent, lighting a cigarette with theatrical flair.
My first thought: This is a goddamn shame. Exactly how and when did homelessness become something undeserving of America’s outrage?
(But I digress.)
My NEXT first thought: He learned to light a cigarette like that in Europe as a young man, when he served as a valet to. . .
- A pair of ornate, wrought-iron gates, flanking a quiet residential street; open now but clearly once intended to close off the sidewalk on both sides to unwanted visitors.
My first thought: Those gates weren’t meant to keep people out. They were meant to keep people in. During World War II, this street led to a private hospital, where a former surgeon in the U.S. Navy was conducting secret experiments on. . .
And that’s how it goes for me, all day, every day. Springboards for stories are everywhere. My wife sees a car at the curb, coated with dust and sporting a windshield crawling with parking tickets; I see the corpse going to rot in the back seat, behind the tinted windows that only days ago had served as a curtain for the last sex act the deceased will ever know.
Most of these Great Ideas of mine are anything but, and I forget about them as quickly as they come to me. But some stick. They grow and gather momentum, almost of their own volition, until I’m too drawn in to do anything but massage them into a full-blown narrative or die trying.
So there you have it: My answer to the dreaded “Where do you get your ideas?” question. I don’t go looking for them; I just stumble upon them, my writer’s intuition (think of Superman’s X-ray vision) enabling me, countless times a day, to see beyond the hard outer shell of something ordinary to the infinite and extraordinary possibilities lurking within.
But hey — if anybody wants to create that secret network of idea lockboxes? Sign me the hell up.
Questions for the class: Readers, what’s the best answer to the “Where do you get your ideas?” question you’ve ever heard? And writers, I’m not going to ask where and how you get your ideas — that would be too easy. But I am curious to know how often you come up with one too good not to keep. Once a day? Twice a month? Exactly how efficient is your own personal idea-generating mechanism?