THEY DON’T KNOW HOW WE DO IT

by Gar Anthony Haywood

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.

Go figure.

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?

18 thoughts on “THEY DON’T KNOW HOW WE DO IT

  1. Richard Maguire

    A very interesting post, Gar. I was at a book signing when the author, whom, I'd guess, had been asked this question a million times, paused for a moment.

    "I'm going to let you in on a little secret – though really it's against the rules."
    "What rules?"
    "Of the international sisterhood of published authors."
    "Oh."
    "Anyway, there are little shops, if you can call them such, where authors can buy ideas."
    "Really? Oh come on, you're joking."
    "You asked me the question. Now, I'm letting you in on the secret where a lot of writers get their ideas. BUT – it's only after your first book has been published that you're invited to contact these idea shops. They are more like a data base, actually. And from what I hear, the ideas are pretty good and the terms are reasonable."
    The author's young interrogator looked bewildered. Meanwhile, the wise and lucky author hadn't taken a break from signing her novels.

    (An apology: To your post on movie and tv titles, I commented. You kindly replied, and I completely misunderstood. It was early Sunday morning here in Europe, I'd been up all night, I was off my meds. etc. etc. I commented back, and made an idiot of myself. Your original reply was most gracious.)

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Ugh. Richard's story is the best example I've ever heard of how NOT to answer that question – that writer was a total snot about it. What an asshole.

    Gar, I think you took us through the process really well, thank you – (and added that we seem to be wired that way, which is really true). I think it's our responsibility to answer the question responsibly, no matter how often we hear it.

  3. Cornelia Read

    Oh, Gar… how I wish there were a lockbox!! I really need several of them this week.

    My ideas come slowly, when I'm in the middle of something else and always, ALWAYS when I don't have a pen.

    What a wonderful, thoughtful, gorgeous post–thank you!

  4. David Corbett

    You were on a bike in your neighborhood and two cop cars cruised past and they didn't even mad dog you? Dude, you ARE getting old.

    (BTW: I bike to my gym too, and am treated as something of a mildly eccentric hippy loon for doing so. Most of the other guys at this particular iron room are muscle-bound gym-rat ex-felon steroid DT'd killers for hire — or maybe I'm just searching for a story.)

    Seriously, Gar, I don't know anyone who has answered this question better. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but as I was reading I had this jolt of recognition, like: Oh, right, that IS where I get my ideas. (Well, duh.)

    I was frankly startled by how clever your ideas were. Mine stay rooted (one might say mred) in teh reality of the situation a bit too much, and I'm often faulting yself for not being imaginative enough. Clearly, you lack that limitation.

    And yet, I think we'd both admit that what these inspirational nuggets provide is the germ of an idea, perhaps merely a situation, not a story. Going from idea to story is where the rubber meets the road, for stories involve believable characters in interesting and unpredictable circumstances, making believable if at times seemingly enigmatic decisions. That's where the work comes in. And as you noted, a good idea is one that you think, after that first aha moment, might just stand up under the pressure of all that additional scrutiny and work.

    Also: One of the things I most love about starting a book is becoming a sponge for these kinds of triggers (mixed metaphor, sorry). This doesn't just happen at the beginning of a book or a story. It goes on throughout as you walk into a store and see a face that tells you: Hey, I'm So-and-So in Chapter 3, and you dash off a description. Or you hear about a local biddy that everyone else takes for granted, and you see her as a great walk-on character for a scene you've been having problems with. The whole world begins to hum and shine, it's alive in a way it wasn't before. It may well be one reason we write.

    Bitch when it happens on your bike, though. Damn hard to jot it down.

  5. Louise Ure

    The ideas come frequently for me. Sometimes as a title, or a character or a sub-plot. But I'm with David. The idea that becomes a story is the tough part.

  6. Alaina

    Sadly, my friends are often observant as well. I don't always get a chance for ideas to grow. For instance, while I was staring up in shock (and somewhat concern) at a pair of sneakers, laces knotted together, thrown over some powerlines, my friend looked up, sniffed, and told me that drug dealers did that to mark meeting places, but the shoes were too far away for her to tell me what type of drug.

    Though, that just brings different ideas all together.

    My ideas usually stay with me, but back in the subconscious. The good ones, I find, are conglomerations. Wandering along, thinking about nothing, when suddenly two unrelated things bang me over the head. Usually, they've been in my head for months; I probably get a good idea every three months or so, and an idea like this– which I want to write– a couple times a year. (which is good. Otherwise, I'd never get to even half of them).

    Example: Common childhood fantasy: ability to turn into different animals for fun.
    Mythology: werewolves are COOL.
    Something I Should Write: Okay, everyone can turn into one random animal, but because they can, it doesn't get you out of school. Also, you don't get to choose which animal. Being a were-chicken sucks.

  7. Lisa Alber

    Gar,

    Yours is the best answer I've heard to the question. Makes sense to me: our wiring. I wonder if people ask math wizards where they get their ideas to put together formulas in some crazy new way? That's just the way their brains are wired. My dad was like that with numbers: he was forbidden to enter Las Vegas casinos after awhile because he could keep track of the cards — cheater! But really, that's just the way his brain worked.

    I find that I have fecund idea periods and dessicated periods. For a particular project, my ideas come while writing. Which is a little annoying, actually. I've never been able to work a story all the way through in my head (or in some kind of outline) before starting the first draft.

  8. Gar Haywood

    Richard: No apology was necessary. I barely understand my responses to some comments myself.

    Alex: You're right. The question gets asked a lot because the answer is important to people who want to do what we do. No, it isn't magic. It's just how our minds react to input.

    Cornelia: Glorious? You're making me blush.

    David: There is no question that the real magic takes place when we turn a mere nugget of an idea into something resembling a functional story. Finding inspiration is easy, because as I've suggested here, that process is essentially effortless. But going from inspiration to plot is nothing but conscious WORK, and that's actually the part of writing I love. (I love re-writing more, but that's a subject for another post.)

    Stephen: You need a bike.

  9. Gar Haywood

    Lisa: I'm that way, too. By the time I've got the opening to a book fully formed in my head, I'm too excited to wait for the rest to come. I just have to dig in, trusting that the middle and the end of the book will work their way into focus for me as I go.

    That approach hasn't failed me yet.

  10. Sarah W

    I agree that your explanation is the best — my husband calls it my "What if?" reflex.

    But one of the funniest explanations I've read is part of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series: Idea particles stream through the spaces in matter all the time, mostly without hitting anything (like tachyons, I think?). But occasionally an idea particle will collide with a living brain like a lightening bolt . . .and there you go. Sometimes the right particle hits the wrong brain, or the wrong idea hits the right brain (or left, presumably), and sometimes (as in Mr. Pratchett's DaVinci- and Shakespeare-based characters) a single brain gets hit with every single idea particle that tries to pass through.

    This tickles me.

    And personally, the number of persuable ideas I get varies — I get those lightning flashes once in a while, but a lot of my ideas sit around in my notebook waiting for a catalyst or a missing piece. If one sticks around, accumulating bits and pieces, I know it's a keeper.

    But I've never run out of What Ifs. Just like you said, they're *everywhere.*

  11. David Bishop

    Another great post Gar. I've long had ambitions to write, but only recently started putting them into practice. I think one of the reasons for my reluctance has been around ideas – too often in the past, I'd start on osmething, but get disheartened when my ideas didn't come together on the first pass. Now. i'm more willing to just go with the flow. and see what comes out, rather than expecting to know exactly where i'm going. I've also been more willing to jump around, and tell different parts of the story and not worrying about slavishly going from a to b to c. I'd recommend this approach to anyone else who might be struggling.

  12. Reine

    So Gar, love . . . does that mean those weird thoughts that assault me from the nose ring and hair extension – you know, by the taco burger stand on Sana Monica – might be useful? Or just that I shouldn't mention them to my friends?

  13. Allison Davis

    Gar, yes, yes and YES (especially getting Stephen a bike, I did laugh out loud). Ideas flow around all the time, sometimes I write them down, most of the time, I want them to be quiet so I don't get distracted from the work at hand so to speak. But that really never works. I have a pile of papers, newspaper articles, scraps in a heap in my bedroom that I keep saying I'm going to go through, organize, clean up or just throw away. It's my mountain of ideas. People see that and they know I'm certifiable. I look at the floor and think, that's my brain? Like I'm afraid to let go of those ideas and others won't come? And the mound grows.

  14. Susan Shea

    Yes, Gar, that's exactly how my mind works too. I'm so glad to know I'm not crazy. Or, wait a minute, does that just mean we're both a little nuts? Stream of conscious imaginings of a twisty nature.

  15. Gar Haywood

    Reine: Actually, I think you've just come up with the best answer to the "Where do you get your ideas?" question yet: "From my nose ring to my hair extension."

    Who could argue with that?

  16. JT Ellison

    Fun post, Gar. I've always seen that question as something deeper – not so much where do you get your ideas as how do you take those ideas and turn them into a cohesive 400 page story. Can't remember what author turned me on to that concept (so sorry for not attributing) but when I answer in that form, I usually get a lot of nodding.

    We do have vivid imaginations, don't we?

  17. Zoรซ Sharp

    Hi Gar – great post. Where did you get the idea for that one?

    Sorry to come late to this (as ever). I have a theory that being a writer is like a form of autism. We just don't have the same filtering system as 'normal' people that allows these possible plot ideas to bounce off our brains. Every one of them goes in and makes a thousand connections.

    When people ask where I get my ideas I occasionally say "Walmart" or "Plots-R-Us" but qualify that by saying that once you open your mind to the possibilities, you're beating them off with a stick.

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