Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

If you have ever been to an author's reading or an artist's talk, you may have heard—or perhaps asked—the question, "Where do you get your ideas?" Sometimes we have an impulse to make a book, know what materials or structure we want to use, but don't have a clear picture of the content. I like to think that the answers will come, but only after asking the questions. What kinds of questions?

Pick a subject, any subject. Tree? Love? Childhood friend? Give specific examples to the following questions. Make lists. Brainstorm with yourself, with others. Write down whatever comes into your mind; keep the door open, and don't edit yet. Draw diagrams and word webs and thought balloons. Write on sticky notes. Write in different colors. Whatever entices you to generate material. Write your subject here ________________.
  1. What does it do? How does it move in the world? How does it interact with others?
  2. What are its characteristics, both physical and metaphysical? What is it made of?
  3. How do you interact with it? Daily? Rarely? With your mind? heart? eyes? stomach?
  4. What are your feelings about it? What draws you to it?
  5. Think of a specific incident, perhaps from your childhood, that includes this. What makes you feel connected to it or repelled by it?
  6. What is its importance in your life? What happens if it is absent?
  7. What happens when there are many of them? Do they cause anything to happen? What do they do that is different from when they are single? Do your feelings about it change?
  8. Who uses it?
  9. What did it look like before this? (Seed? Raw material? Glint in an eye?)
  10. How does it change, evolve, or grow with age? (Wrinkled, bare, soft, rust, moss, etc.)
  11. What sounds does it make?
  12. What does it taste like? 
  13. What is its texture?
  14. What else is happening in your life right now? How does it relate (or not) to the subject? What happens when you put the two experiences side by side?
  15. What would it look like as a postcard or as the subject of a letter you were writing?
  16. What would it look like as a scene in a play? Imagine the book as a stage.
  17. Who else might talk about it? Who might gossip about it?
  18. Does it follow, use, or embody a process? What is the process? Imagine the book as a film.
Once you choose a subject, you can use the questions to investigate it further, narrow down what you feel compelled to show, and connect it to something more conceptually interesting. Maybe the answer to one of the questions will lead you to your idea.

You can start working with your idea from various angles, such as with materials or structure, as mentioned here. But from purely a content standpoint, what else might you do with that idea? How will you narrow it down even further, distill it into something you want to show or say?

If it is an abstraction, such as love, memory, or frustration, it may need some symbols or stories in order to be explained or felt. What are the actions that each of these abstract examples produce? 
  • Love might also embody the action of protecting someone or something. What might be protected? Does the protector succeed? How does the protectee feel about this? From what might it or he or she be protected? What is outside? Weather? Another person? Shelter might be the form of a box with love as something warm inside.
  • Memory might incorporate an argument about the thing remembered, which might involve two or more family members, friends, or strangers. It might be fog or blurriness. It could be shown in photographs or letters, perhaps altered.
  • Frustration might be the cause of something being destroyed. What is it? How large or important is the thing destroyed? What is the method of destruction? Is it slow or fast? Does it affect others? You might show it with shredded paper, a smashed corner, or multiple hooks that need to be undone to open the book.
Protection, arguments, and destruction might be easier to visualize than love, memory and frustration. Keep asking, "and then what happens" so you might tease apart the idea and find a natural sequence. Consider what is at stake: Who gains? Who loses? What is lost or gained?

You can then layer the idea with research. Dive deep into the definition or essence of one thing, examining all of its nuances. One exercise is mentioned in this post about Cubist Stories. Look up the actual definition of your subject in a dictionary. How is the word used in the dictionary example sentences? There may be a story in the making already there. Do more research. Find interesting facts, things that aren't obvious. You can also use lists to create a cumulative effect such as all the chocolate you gave as gifts and your relationships to the people to whom you gave it, or a catalogue of your shoes that includes where you got them, why, and times when you wear them now.

You can talk about one thing, but use it as a symbol or sign of something else. Thinking about one activity, but overlaying the emotions on something else. One exercise that seems to work is Person/Place/Action. You put yourself in new situation, perhaps in a fictional character's clothing or house, but use feelings and descriptions of things that you know. It gives you some distance so you can be clear, specific, and able to find the story.

You can extract one idea from another. The Bear Trap story exercise looks at an object and has you list the characteristics of the object, then use those qualities and apply them to a new story. What are the characteristics of a bear trap? It surprises you. It hurts. It holds on too tight and too long. It traps you. It takes a prisoner. It is set on purpose. You can't move forward. Can you see a story without a trap or a bear, but that has one or all of the characteristics described? A relationship, a job, or a meeting with a stranger, perhaps?

Where do you get an idea? You don't have to make it up out of your head. Look around. What in the world grabs you? Grab it back. It's a challenge, but now you need to spend time with it. Maybe several hours. Interview your subject. Listen to what it says.