Earlier this week, we had a couple of friends over for a drink, and, when the topic of conversation turned to writing, a question arose which all writers have to address. It comes in many, many different variants, but it’s basically this: where do ideas come from? It’s understandable why it crops up so often, since the generation of ideas is probably the most mysterious part of the writing process to a non-writer, and I’ve encountered several people who say wistfully ‘I’d love to write a book, but I can’t think what I’d write about’. It is, however, very difficult to come up with a response, since the real answer is either ‘from the aether’ or ‘from anything and everything’, which are both equally unhelpful.
Not only is the genesis of ideas mysterious, but there seems to be a common misconception that the deal is one idea per book/story, and that each idea is hard to come by. Now I can’t claim to speak for all writers, but in my case each work – except for very short stories – will include many different ideas, in a variety of forms, some very much changed from how they started. I have hanging on my wall a mosaic picture of a view from a window into a garden. It’s made of all kinds of stuff – bits of stones, pottery, old gin bottles – now turned into something completely different. That’s very much what writing a book is like for me – scavenged pieces cemented together, involving gin.
As for the question of how hard it is to have ideas, well, the honest answer in my case is that it’s not hard at all. It’s not even easy – it’s involuntary. Ideas come whether I want them to or not, from anything, at any time. The problem has never been, for me, lack of ideas – if anything, I have too many of the damn things. The hard bit is working out which are the good ones. The harder bit is working out how to stick them together to form that picture. And the hardest bit is actually sitting down and writing the bloody book.
So where does all this leave someone who wants to write but isn’t sure where to start? The above might not sound terribly helpful, and indeed when I first started planning this blog post I was thinking that the conclusion would probably be that the ability to have story ideas is a bit like synaesthesia: the raw material, the sensory stimulus, is the same for everyone, but the perception is different. I can’t smell music or hear colours, most other people can’t overhear a conversation in Starbucks and turn it into a novel. But then a tiny incident occurred while I was out walking. I heard a quiet twittering, and looked up into the nearest tree – to see a male bullfinch, bright orange breast standing out against the dull grey sky. A cheering sight on a dreary day. As I was admiring the finch, a man walked by, completely oblivious, eyes on the pavement, earbuds firmly plugged in. And I thought, well, maybe having ideas is less like synaesthesia, and more like bird spotting: if you keep your senses alert and look up when you hear a twitter, you’ll see the beautiful plumage. If you keep totally focused and intent on whatever it is you’re doing, you’ll miss out on all the possibilities. Well, that’s my excuse for being incredibly distractible, and I’m sticking to it.
Just for fun, here’s an exercise in how ideas can come from anything:
1. Hit ‘Shuffle All’ on your iPod. When the first song comes up, take a phrase from it, and/or record how the music makes you feel.
2. Eavesdrop on a conversation, preferably strangers. Record a brief exchange.
3. Flip through a magazine. What’s the first picture you see? Write a brief description of it.
4. Right, now you’ve got three ideas. Time to put them together and write a story!