Where do you get your ideas?

That question, more than any other, seems to be a bugbear for writers and other artists.

I find it embarrassing, myself. Not because it’s hard to answer, and not because the answer (from my brain) is so obvious and anticlimactic. It’s because I inevitably hear a question behind the question: why is it that you have good ideas and I don’t?

It can’t be true that the asker has no ideas, or really doesn’t know where ideas come from, right? Those aren’t possibilities I can entertain, and I am the queen of entertaining possibilities. The question, as asked, doesn’t make much sense.

The unasked question, on the other hand, is awkward. It puts a chasm between me and the asker (Rachel = full of glorious ideas; asker = full of stupid ideas) and I feel pretty sure the asker didn’t quite mean to ask it. Is it rude to answer what was not explicitly asked? I usually make up some kind of funny answer that is also true: where don’t I get ideas? Ideas are like a fire hose to the face, and I wish I could turn it off sometimes.

Here’s what I’d rather say, though:

I don’t have good ideas, or at least, not any better than anyone else. What I have is a willingness to entertain ideas. I don’t dismiss them out of hand. I have them over for tea, and if we get along well enough, maybe dinner. The ones I really like end up staying over. And maybe I should cut that metaphor off right there; you get the idea. My “good” ideas are simply the ones that interest me most, just like my friends are the people I get along with best, rather than the best people.

I will entertain any idea, no matter how ugly. Sometimes the ugliest ones are the most fruitful; sometimes they’re ugly because they’re full of other ideas. Scary ones are harder to face, and I will sometimes put them off, but I’ve never yet regretted looking one in the eye. Insipid ones, boring ones, cliched and tedious ones – I get plenty of those. I’m happy to let them in because sometimes a more unusual idea is hiding underneath them.

I don’t marry my ideas. There are always, ALWAYS more; that is an article of faith for me. I let go of the ones that don’t grab me or I can’t use – and I get so many I’m not sure I even see them all – but what I never do is label them stupid or bad. You start putting those kinds of labels on ideas, and maybe the ideas will get the idea that your mind is an unsafe place to be. Why should they come around, if you’re going to be so mean to them? (and yet I bet some of them still do).

What I’m trying to say – in the most circuitous way possible – is that ideas invite more ideas. I think the really interesting ones only come around after you’ve shown a certain willingness to entertain the lesser ones. You can’t just dismiss the little ones; it’d be like dismissing a rock for being boring, when you could have built Chartres with enough rocks just like it.

It’s not a question of where I get ideas, but of how I treat ideas.

There’s probably more to it. Different minds probably generate different flavours of ideas. Some may be more suited to other purposes, like philosophy, or business,  or physics. But again, I  think the willingness to consider possibilities – even the ones that inner Grendel-voice would like to dismiss as stupid – would be a useful trait of mind in any field.

Before I go, let me just invoke the classic(al) example of a “stupid” idea. Have some Beethoven:

Duh-duh-duh-DUUUUHHHHNNN. That’s a musical idea. It’s pretty ludicrous, on the face of things. It seems barely an idea worth having. But old Ludwig, by golly, he invited it in. He talked to it and listened to what it had to tell him. He built a mighty edifice from that stupid stone.

O hypothetical asker! Talk to your stupid ideas. They’re as full of potential as any of mine.


16 Comments on “Where do you get your ideas?”

  1. My take is that people aren’t really asking “How is it that one has ideas?”, it’s more like “Tell me an interesting anecdote about the genesis of one of your ideas.”

  2. Tall Kate says:

    I love this! It’s not that you have better ideas, necessarily (though I suspect you’re being overly modest in that department); it’s that you create an environment to let them all flourish and some turn out to be great. Nice insight into your process.

  3. Tall Kate says:

    (Plus, I was on a Beethoven kick last week.)

  4. Mike DeSanto says:

    I stand by my saying: 90% of creativity is intellectual property theft. Take a little of that book you read when you were 12, a smidge from the news last week and a twist of something somebody said at the latest RPG session, and you end up with something that looks like a new idea.

    That sounds rather cynical when I see ti written down.

    PS: Rachel IS full of glorious ideas.

  5. Rebecca says:

    Obviously, you steal them all from my part of our shared brain-in-a-jar. That’s why I don’t have any (except the math ones; you seem to leave those for me).

  6. Arwen says:

    Oh, that’s wonderful. Nice frame.

  7. And I’m of the opinion that everything lies in the execution of an idea. If a stupid idea comes with great characters and great writing, then it no longer “feels” stupid.

    Jim Butcher was given the initial idea for the Codex Alera series (a GREAT fantasy series, if you’ve never read it) on a bet. He said, “The bet was actually centered around writing craft discussions being held on the then-new Del Rey Online Writers’ Workshop, I believe. The issue at hand was central story concepts. One side of the argument claimed that a good enough central premise would make a great book, even if you were a lousy writer. The other side contended that the central concept was far less important than the execution of the story, and that the most overused central concept in the world could have life breathed into by a skilled writer.

    It raged back and forth in an ALL CAPITAL LETTERS FLAMEWAR between a bunch of unpublished writers, and finally some guy dared me to put my money where my mouth was, by letting him give me a cheesy central story concept, which I would then use in an original novel.

    Me being an arrogant kid, I wrote him back saying, “Why don’t you give me TWO terrible ideas for a story, and I’ll use them BOTH.”

    The core ideas he gave me were Lost Roman Legion and Pokémon… Thus was Alera formed.”

    And that is why we should never be afraid of stupid ideas. :D

  8. Brian says:

    I don’t have good ideas, or at least, not any better than anyone else.

    I have found, over the time that I’ve known you, that I agree with you most of the time. On this particular issue, though, I disagree with you in the strongest possible terms. I am, by profession, training, and inclination, a writer. I can explain complex ideas to people in ways that make them say, “Oh, that’s so clear now!” I can tell an entertaining story about something that happened to me, or someone I know. I can take a boring event and relate it in such a manner as to be amusing, or sad, or dramatic, depending on the words I choose.

    But I’m not, and likely never will be, a fiction writer, because I don’t have that same font of ideas. I read fiction, be it great literature, or my favorite fantasy, or a comic book, or what little I know about Seraphina, or even one of Josh’s RPG settings, and I think, “I could never have had that idea. I don’t know where they came up with something that insane.” I have the same background as my friends who write fiction, the same stockpile of stories that they draw from, but the ideas come to them, and not to me. If you want the most obviously, hackneyed way a story can proceed? I can write that for you, no problem. But original or unexpected? It’s beyond me. It’s frustrating, but I’ve learned to live with it.

    So when a reader asks, “Where do you get your ideas?” It’s not disingenuous, and it’s not contrived — they really want to know where the ideas come from. Because they don’t get those ideas, and they want to know why not. But I suspect it’s one of those “explain color to the blind man” things — if you don’t already have it, you’re not going to get it. And if you do have it, you can’t conceive of the idea of not having it, which precludes explanation.

    • You’ve got me thinking, I admit. I don’t live in your head; I don’t doubt your self-reporting. But I will just say this: you don’t see 99% of my ideas. The vast majority of ideas I come up with are not brilliant, by any measure. Alternatively, some brilliant ideas will never see the light of day because they don’t work well with others and so they’re useless to me. Maybe it’s a quantity thing – I just have so many, some of them are bound to be the ones I need.

      One difficulty I’m running into talking about this is what, exactly, constitutes an “idea”. I was thinking of them as building blocks, and we all have lots of them. But finding the way to put the blocks together – same blocks – is ALSO an idea, I suppose. Maybe a more crucial category of idea, for creative work. Hmm hmm hmm.


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