Sigh. Where Do You Get Ideas?

Quoth Anonymous: I know we’re not supposed to ask this because it seems amateurish, but where do you get your ideas?

There’s a certain kind of writer bully who loudly pretends that “professionals” like them don’t have the luxury of ideas: they just sit down and invent a character and go. 

Hey, dumbfuck. That’s an idea.

When assholes like that shit on “ideas,” it’s usually because they think some kinds of idea (mostly situations) are less pure or literary than others (say, a character or a beautiful line of prose or the yearning of the human heart).

Guys like that (and most of your English teachers) think Herman Melville sat down, cracked his knuckles, and whispered, “destructive obsession” to himself before diving into Moby Dick.

More likely, he woke up in the middle of the night thinking, “Wouldn’t it be ripshit to see a guy all tangled in harpoon lines and lashed to the side of an enormous breaching whale? And his arm could be free, kinda waving even though he’s dead? Fuck yeah.”

(Note: I’m no Melville scholar, and I’m aware there was already an incident that also inspired him. But you KNOW he had to see that image, too. Ideas are never just one thing.)

The reason it’s not super useful to talk about where ideas come from is that they come from everywhere if you’re the kind of perceptive and curious person you should be as a writer.

I’ve gotten story ideas from:

  • An episode of This American Life (“Remembrance is Something Like a House”)
  • A credulous 70s TV show about weird shit (“In Search Of”)
  • An image of ghostly people walking in a line at an abandoned asylum (“The Ghost Factory”)
  • An image of a giant hollow tree stump (“Acres of Perhaps”)
  • A quick joke tweet that I quickly deleted (“Night Fever”)

By themselves, those glimmers of interest weren’t super useful, though early in my writing practice, I tried to spread concepts like them very thinly over the forced structure of a story. Which inevitably failed.

Why? Because ideas, like you, are always collisions of at least two things that only you can reconcile.

That’s why it doesn’t do much good to wait for ideas or dwell on them too long: you are already a teeming cauldron of unique things only you can write about, if you’re brave enough to combine the easy superficial ideas with the tougher personal ones.  

My story “The Leaning Lincoln” is a collision of these things:

  • I really liked action figures as a kid.
  • My father was an abusive asshole, losing control of himself as our fortunes faded.
  • My father’s friend gave me a lead figurine of Abraham Lincoln that had cooled too quickly and was stooped.
  • A lot of weird bad luck happened after I got it.
  • That guy later murdered his attorney.

That’s pretty dramatic, I grant, and it feels inevitable now as a story. But when I started, all I knew was I wanted to write about a cursed lead figure. I had to force myself to connect that idea more deeply to my own experiences.

I had to wait to submit that story until my father died because I was legitimately concerned he would sue me.

What do you DO with those ideas? My advice is to go wide and deep:

  • Wide to encounter a lot of different things that amaze, anger, and otherwise stimulate you.  
  • Deep to connect those things as metaphors to what you love and hate and fear inside yourself (experiences, passions, regrets, mistakes, triumphs).

In preparation for that future column, here’s an exercise I’ve used from time to time to nudge my brain into action.

  1. Grab as many blank index cards as you can.
  2. As quickly as you can, write one thing you love or hate or find interesting on as many of them as you can. For example, my deck includes cards that say, “Twin Peaks” and “Zodiac” and “Vintage Computers” and “Cthulhu” and “Ghosts” and “Porsche 914” and “Running” and “UFOs” and “Gone Girl” and “True Crime” and “Gay Culture Folkways” and “Journalism.”  
  3. Then on other index cards, write a series of times and/or places that you have either experienced or find interesting. Some of mine are, “1970s New York” and “1980s Florida” and “1960s California” and “Ainger Creek” and “Marston Science Library.”
  4. Shuffle those decks either together or separately.
  5. If you kept them separate, pull ONE time/place and TWO love/hate cards. Otherwise, just pick three cards.
  6. Write down the equation that results.
    • Boy Scout Camp + Zodiac + 1980s Florida
    • Gay culture folkways + psychic children + 19th Century Norway
    • Giant Squids + Kennedy Assassination + Shenandoah Valley

You’re going to get a lot of weird shit, and that’s the point. You are using these cards not to tell you what to write about but to get you thinking of what flows BETWEEN them. Don’t take them too literally.

I can guarantee at least a few will excite you with a shiver of recognition as though they have existed inside you for years.

That’s because they have. And now we’re cracking them out to set them free.