“Where do you get the ideas for your books?” Everybody who writes a book hears this question. I’ve published two middle-grades novels and two books of poetry, so I’ve heard it quite a few times. I always give an honest answer, but every time I feel like a liar.
I explain that I start with a kernel of real experience, mine or someone else’s. It may change a lot in the process of writing—it may be so fictionalized that it has very little to do with the original experience—but with any luck it will retain what attracted me in the first place—a certain feeling of depth or potential that comes from the ambiguity that I and my character feel about the situation, or the dilemma that entraps both me and my character.
I feel like a liar saying this, because giving any kind of answer implies that I know what I’m doing. That I have a store of ideas to draw on. That I know where ideas lurk and how to turn them into entire novels.
The truth is, I don’t know what I’m doing at all. I don’t know if I’ll ever have another idea or produce another novel. And sometimes I feel like simply blank, like generating a grocery list is about the peak of my creative powers.
My friend Holly—a multi-talented writer-artist-actor and a woman of awe-inspiring energy and intensity—once told me she never sits around saying, “What should I write about?” For her, the norm is to have so many ideas, so many projects, so many stories in her mind demanding to be told, that the problem is finding time to do justice to even half of them. She is besieged with ideas. (I’ll bet even her grocery lists are creative, somehow.)
The last time I saw her, she promised to send a few of those excess “story gremlins” my way.
If only she could.
An idea is a very personal thing. Before it can become a real, whole, completed, beautiful entity—novel, poem, whatever—it has to be nurtured, often for a very long time. And that takes love. Not the easy kind you feel for an adorable puppy, but the much tougher kind that goes with a long marriage. The kind with rapids and deep pools and muddy shallows, with peaks and plateaus and even a sinkhole or two.
I’ll be on the lookout for Holly’s story gremlins. But even if she’s capable of sending them by mental telepathy—I wouldn’t put it past her—they may not be the right gremlins for me. For better or worse, I apparently have to spend a lot of time racking my brains and living my life and staring at nothing before I can find my idea.
I’m going to take my cue from Flannery O’Connor, who didn’t put much stock in the notion of heaven-sent inspiration. She once said (and please forgive the inaccuracies—I’ve searched but can’t find the source), “If there’s a brilliant idea out there somewhere, it knows where to find me—at my desk every morning between nine and twelve.”