The Dreaded Question: “So where do you get your ideas?”

In this golden age of the listicle, I’m pretty sure there are a number of articles about what not to ask a writer.  Here’s a tip: if this isn’t #1, disregard the entire article.  The author clearly has no idea what they’re talking about. It’s a horrible question, because it’s an impossible one to answer.

Where do you get your ideas?

That’s like asking someone “where do you get your food?”  The grocery store, sure.  But you also have a variety of favorite restaurants, farmers’ markets, fast food joints.  Sometimes you have to drudge through your Sunday meal-prep session, sometimes you get inspired at two AM on a Wednesday and wake up your roommate with a plate of pumpkin-themed Indian dishes that you wouldn’t be scared to show Gordon Ramsay.

Where do you get your ideas?

I planned The Thrilling Adventures of Clara Delaney in a single morning last year.

I was at work as a substitute teacher.  That day, my assignment was at my old high school, meaning I was teaching a class I’d taken about five years prior.  It was a pretty easy day, since the entire morning was taken up with PSATs, and so another teacher and I were just hanging out while the teenagers scribbled away.

About halfway through, I got smacked upside the face with a panic attack.

I’ve dealt with anxiety issues all my life, but I actually don’t get panic attacks often.  When I do, it feels like my brain splits in half.  Part of me is a gibbering mess, and part of me watches it happen.  The logical half just steps aside and waits for the gibbering half to get through it.  There’s not a whole lot else I can do.

Problem was, this was at work.  I was in a room full of teenagers, and curling up in a ball in the corner to babble about Ebola is fairly unprofessional.  So instead, I blamed the physical shivering on the cold (I’d been soaked to the bone that morning, thank you weather-that-didn’t-need-an-umbrella-when-I-left), picked up a pencil, and wrote.

I scribbled down the most ridiculous premise I could think of (bookshop abducted by aliens) and added details until I’d stopped trembling.   And added more details after that. And sketched the characters until I had to tell the teenagers to put their pencils down.

And lo, I had my NaNoWriMo novel for the year all sketched out.

Where do you get your ideas?

Sometimes I just freewrite.  That’s where this article started: thanks to a fairly harried week and a few other posts in the works I hadn’t really had time to plan anything out.

This works best with poetry, especially freeverse.  I’ll sit down over a lunch break or after work with a notebook in hand and just blot down words until I latch onto something evocative.  I wrote something once (back in high school) completely based off the phrase “the language obscene”, which stuck out-of-context in my head from a Sylvia Plath poem.

It turned into a heartfelt (and fairly good) poem about prejudice against teenagers’ linguistic patterns, because that’s apparently the sort of thing I’m passionate about.

Freewriting is an amazing way to draw connections.  When you write down whatever words pop into your mind, whatever phrases are sliding around your consciousness, you can figure out a lot about yourself.  It’s therapeutic in the way only writing can be.

Where do you get your ideas?

Sometimes  I literally just write what I know.  Sometimes I’ll hit pockets of inspiration that have no particular story or word behind them, so I’ll sit down and write a few passages about the changing leaves on the trees around me.  Or the glint of sunlight in the rearview mirror.  Or the exact clarity of an unpolluted stream.

Or, failing that, the time a cancer survivor and his midget son tried to sell 15-year-old me steaks out of the back of a truck. The time my mother hit a shark in the face with a bag of lionfish while 15 feet underwater.  Silly stories from work. Anything.

Honestly, 90% of my writing is just observation crammed around a plot.

And now I’m out of writing.  So I’ll end on the worst question you can possibly ask a writer: where do you get your ideas?


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