Every time I attend an author event, this question is asked. I’ve answered it and I’ve heard other authors answer it. And, frankly, I think most of us have been doing some very creative fibbing.
Seriously. I’ve come to believe that anyone who answers this question in a straightforward, I-have-the-answer-you-are-looking-for way isn’t being entirely truthful. I rehearsed an answer to this question before my very first author event because I wanted to sound like I had this writer thing down and knew exactly what I was doing.
But I don’t.
And it isn’t just me, other more famous—and braver—authors have come right out and admitted the ambiguity surrounding the idea-getting process.
Neil Gaiman has a great post about the idea question on his site. Not only does he discuss the origin of ideas, but he also stresses that ideas themselves are just the first step in the marathon process that is writing. In other words, you need much more than a great idea to be a great writer.
Stephen King participated in a writing Q&A where he says he can only tell where his ideas come from about 50% of the time, and, even then, ideas need to be nurtured and developed. He uses the analogy of a little piece of grit (the idea) that eventually, with time, becomes a pearl.
In her book, Take Joy, Jane Yolen includes an essay titled, ‘The Mystery that is Writing’ where she addresses this “simple, yet infinitely tricky question.” She says that every story begins in two places—”the physical, touchable, knowable” (what readers and aspiring writers want to know when they ask the idea question) and “the hidden recesses of the heart” (the intangible characteristics unique to each writer). She describes the moment when the two places touch as being like when a mother hen taps on the outside of an egg and a baby chick responds with a tap on the inside. They tap and respond until they come together, the egg cracks open, and life emerges. Yolen says:
“It’s just that way a story begins, with a physical tapping on the outside: a line of a song that won’t leave your head, an article in the newspaper that strikes a chord, a fragment of conversation that loops endlessly…a repeating dream.
“And then, the answering emotion that taps within…
“The moment they come together, the story starts.”
Why does one idea move an individual to write, while others don’t. Why does one particular forest path, history book, conversation, fairy tale, gravestone, stranger, abandoned house, etc. get my writer’s mind churning, while another doesn’t? Why do I wake up with a scene from a recurring dream in my head some mornings, but not others?
I don’t know. I only know that I will continue to read and watch and explore and live and be open to ideas and inspiration whenever they decide to tap-tap-tap…