For anyone who writes stories, makes music or does any sort of creative art, this has to be one of the most common questions you are asked, and one of the most common questions you want to ask others.
It’s a mysterious thing. I think so many people are curious about it, even people who themselves are involved in the creative arts, because it’s not always concrete and logical (those aspects do come into play, of course). Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly where that first seed or flash or image or idea originated.
Sometimes you know. The idea for Total Eclipse of the Heart, which I wrote originally as a short story and am now having fun working into a screenplay, came to me pretty much fully-formed in a dream, including some of the dialogue. Actually in the dream I was taking a screenwriting class (which at that point in time I had never done in real life) and struggling with writers block, then came up with this idea for the story and in the dream I was reworking it and molding it. There were so many details, so many subplots and so much complexity for a story that came from a dream.
That has never happened before or since but it was pretty cool when it did. It kinda made me feel like I had to write the story.
Sometimes, ideas come from images. Kind of out of nowhere, I remembered this blue carpeting in a room where I went to Sunday School as a kid and couldn’t get the image, and the creepy feeling I associated with it, out of my head, and that became the seed for a short story called “Lead Us Not Into Temptation” about kids questioning religion.
There’s also a novel idea I worked on briefly in later high school years (I don’t have any of the original writing, it’s in some notebook in some box in my parents’ house but I do remember the general storyline) that I’m thinking of revisiting and reworking into something new, possibly at NaNoWriMo Summer Camp. It started with an image I had in my mind, pretty simple really, of a woman walking alone under cold moonlight and contemplating her life. There are other stories that have originated from images that come from song lyrics.
Sometimes ideas come from other people. I remember there was one time that I had a story due for a fiction class in a few days and nothing to write about. Someone suggested to me that I write a story about someone with psychic abilities who gets persecuted by a group of overly religious zealots. I didn’t quite go in that direction, but that was the original impetus for the short story “Dark As Roses.”
Other ideas come from ideas. Sometimes it’s not an image but some twist of thought that inspires a story. There are a few of those ideas floating around my head now. Sometimes you think of telling a common type of story with a twist, with a role reversal, with some new angle or perspective to make it fresh. For my story “A Star is Born” from my high school days, I remember just having this thought that I wanted the story to end with this huge explosion which would be the Big Bang, to write a story about what happens before. For the essay Blue Alchemy, the idea came from reading Gregory Orr‘s “Return to Hayneville” which had to do with revisiting a place from his past (with some horrific experiences attached to it) much later. I wanted to write about that same feeling of revisiting places of the past, but wanted to talk about doing so through writing instead of actual physical revisiting.
The other night, I was at my blind convention, hanging out REALLY late and my phone was dead. The hotel was huge, with two big buildings connected by an indoor corridor full of restaurants. Of course, I was on the opposite end from where my room was, and I briefly imagined what if something happened to me while I was crossing back across the corridor so late at night with a dead cell phone. And then I thought, hmmm, a murder mystery story set at a blind convention. Now that could be an interesting story. Sometimes ideas come just from an odd train of thought getting a little derailed.
With memoir, it can be a little harder. All the material, for the most part, is already there. But that can be a problem. One of the hardest things about writing about your own life is figuring out what’s important and what isn’t and how to shape the important stuff into a story that is interesting and thematic and creative and crafted and well-written without compromising the truth. So often it can feel almost simultaneously that everything in your life is vitally important and that nothing in your life is worth putting down on paper. So where do you get your ideas on where to start?
The best thing you can do is start somewhere, keep writing, and keep an open mind. I originally thought I would be writing all about the time in my life when I left college, traveled around to organic farms, went back home for a few months then moved cross country, lived in some really shitty conditions and narrowly escaped being homeless to eventually land on a beautiful island. It has a natural arc. It feels like a story, and it is, but with one writing assignment that all turned for me and I started writing about my freshman year in college. I had never before realized how important and symbolic that time in my life had been for me. The point is, sometimes you have to start writing to get your ideas, to know what you want to write about it.
What about you? Do your ideas always come to you the same way, or from all different sources? What’s your favorite way an idea for something came to you? Do you have any tricks or routines that you use to generate ideas? Where do YOUR ideas come from?
After reading this I checked out your fiction page. From the synopses they definitely look like the kind of stuff I want to read.
After reading this I checked out your fiction page. From the synopses, the stories definitely look like the kind of thing I want to read.
Right on. I’ll definitely be putting up some excerpts from fiction stories as part of the Friday Writing Sample thing. There are some complete (and somewhat mortifying) stories under Older Works too.
Thanks for reading!
P.S. Thanks for the tweets!
Great post thanks. I really enjoyed it very much.
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My ideas come from everywhere: an overheard conversation on the metro, a work situation, a tattoo plastered on someone’s wrist. Today I visited the daylily field where, four years earlier, the idea for a short story evolved. Pacing the fields in the drizzle back then, shortly after my father was diagnosed with a stage 4 head cancer, I was wondering what to write next. then I saw a couple of the field workers kiss and the everything slid into place: my character (Clayton Pettigrew), his situation (ambitious college boy home for summer finds our mother is dying of lung cancer), and how he changes (works for a daylily business owner and realizes life is short, that the future is now). It’s a lovely love story, though sad. Peace…
Oooh, what an experience! I’d love to read your story someday :) But even more than that, I’m dying to know what kind of story idea you got from a wrist tattoo. Do tell.