Where do writers get their ideas from?
In her first blog post for Enterprising Writers, Avril Silk asks herself the question that most writers hate being asked! “Where do Writers get their ideas from?”
I’m enjoying a long, vivid and varied life. Writing has been part of it ever since I wrote a film script aged ten — an astonishing sixty-four years ago. It was turned down by my teacher, Mr Upton, because it included an aeroplane, and he patronisingly asked me where the school was going to find such a thing. Even then I knew we could just go to Bristol Airport — at the wonderfully named Lulsgate Bottom — and point a camera at the sky… but I did not prevail. It still rankles a bit.
I’ve written for all ages — fiction, fact, features, songs and plays. I’ve written purely from my imagination as well as to commission and sometimes I’ve even been paid. I’m blatantly fond of alliteration, ellipses, word-play and semi-colons. If I can work in a quote by Bob Dylan, I will — as long as I don’t end up shelling out squillions of pounds to Sony in copyright fees.
I’ve been racking my brains to see if I have a method. My son, who edits my work, laughed out loud at that. Certainly we work very differently. He nails down his story arcs with careful, detailed plotting — and sticks to that. His way is not for me — and my way may not be for you. Almost certainly not! Like all conversations however, there is often something that resonates and illuminates. Some ideas might seem fleeting, and many are, but others have a certain tenacity. We return to them time and time again. It’s a bit like being hit by Cupid’s arrow — it might not be what you were expecting, or wanted, but be adventurous and see where the ride takes you. And don’t be afraid to say, ‘That is not for me at all.’ (Saying that to Cupid is another story…)
I think of writing as a journey. It begins with a spark — an idea. I’m lucky. My brain is always fizzing, sparking and popping with ideas — some viable — some doomed to wither on the vine. That’s OK. I’ve been gardening during lockdown for the first time ever. I did not know what a ruthless pursuit it is. Not all seeds make it. Nor do all ideas.
People ask writers, ‘Where do your ideas come from?’ Melissa Burkley Ph.D, The Social Thinker, writing in Psychology Today, discussed this with one of my favourite authors, the acclaimed Neil Gaiman. He says getting asked this question is the primary pitfall of being a writer.
“Doctors, for example, are always being asked for free medical advice, lawyers are asked for legal information, morticians are told how interesting a profession that must be and then people change the subject fast. And writers are asked where we get our ideas from… I don’t know myself where the ideas really come from, what makes them come, or whether one day they’ll stop… In the beginning I used to tell people the not very funny answers, the flip ones: ‘From the Idea-of-the-Month Club,’ I’d say, or ‘From a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis,’ ‘From a dusty old book full of ideas in my basement’.”
Stephen King answered,
“I can tell you about fifty percent of the time where I got the idea. And the rest of it is totally like getting an idea in a dream and I can’t really remember where they came from.”
Melissa Burkley concludes that writers hate answering this question because the truth is, they don’t have a clue where their ideas come from. I can’t believe I’m in a minority of one, but I have a long list of clues, including, and not only, my unconscious (hereafter called ‘the imagination’); conversations, including things overheard; books; radio and TV programmes; commissions about subjects I’d not considered before; the news in all its frightening variety; films; adverts; and more. Quotations and poetry speak to me — something in their condensed precision goes to the heart of the matter.
My longest writing journey, The Rainbow Prophecies was inspired by a quotation from the Earthsea books and Ursula LeGuin kindly gave me permission to use it, with suitable accreditation. (Don’t be afraid to ask. And always credit writers. Imagine how you would feel if people claimed your work as their own.) It was a springboard:
“This is. And thou art. There is no safety. There is no end. The word must be heard in silence. There must be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.”
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Farthest Shore
I jotted bits and pieces down on the backs of envelopes in time honoured tradition. Mostly I just thought. I could cogitate for England. Talking to other writers shows me that how I think can be too open for them — the possibilities are too many. Overwhelming, in fact. I understand, and when I was younger, I too was overwhelmed. As Bob Dylan sang, ‘I got a head full of ideas/That are drivin’ me insane’. Thankfully I long ago came to terms with the reality that not all my sparks will catch fire. But the ones that do…
Over the coming months I’ll talk about different projects, and how they came into being. The point is, there’s no one path. Even if a group of writers have the same destination — say, getting their work out in the world — their routes will be very different. If ten of us set out to travel from Devon to Scotland, we will take ten very different paths. Some of us might end up in France. Or back in Devon.
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
T.S Eliot. The Four Quartets
This article by Avril Silk first appeared on the Enterprising Writer blog. We will be launching our new membership website Enterprising Writers on the 14th December 2020. Til then you can find us on the blog or in our Facebook Community Group where we get together to support each other and discuss our work. We also have an Enterprising Writers Facebook page and you can find us on Twitter and Instagram.