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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

Where Do Writing Ideas Come From?

In the last week I’ve been asked by friends, fans and family what seems an obvious question (sometimes): “Where do you get your ideas?”

One way to answer this is simply to say what I really think, which is “I DON’T KNOW!” But that’s not exactly an answer, and certainly not polite. I’ve read that some writers formulate a stock answer to this question because, on their book tours and at book fairs (or just sitting down to dinner at a restaurant) they get this question asked of them constantly (often enough from two people in a row, with the second one having been standing right behind the first!); and if you can’t always come up with a unique answer, then say something that sounds good (even unique) but in fact is about as canned as SPAM.

Hemingway didn’t like to talk about nor answer questions regarding his writing, or where ideas came from. He said they (the ideas) were of a mystical nature and to talk about them “was spooky.” On the other side of the spectrum sat Eudora Welty, who seemed to find story just about everywhere, and took dialogue from anyone, and scene that happened before her eyes (at the post office, on the bus, walking through the park). Neither process is unusual.

I lean somewhere tripping toward Welty. One of my answers last week was, “I’m not so sure, but sometimes shit just flies out at me from some place. I catch it and see if it works.” Another answer I needed to temper for the audience: “They’re not so controlled, but I invite the ideas in because I don’t think too hard about the problem.” (In this case, “problem” refers to scene or character or dialogue or imagery that I’ve been thinking about before and LETTING ALONE for a day or so.) I used to say this very line (please follow the canned response) to my fiction writing students at Columbia College Chicago. More than half of them didn’t understand. And I know why.

You see, they lacked imagination, and writers do not lack this key ingredient to finding, seeing, developing, and … fucking drum-roll, please! … FINISHING the story (which is really not the end to the process because then writers rewrite the story numerous times to fill in those spots where imagination hadn’t been slip-sliding its best that day — get it?).

So then, I sit here to ask myself: Where do your writing ideas come from? The answer, for me, must be delivered as a list (in no particular order):

1. Imagination … 2. Life-Love-Death experience … 3. Inspiration … 4. Understanding Human Nature … 5. Misunderstanding Human Nature … 6. Having Been Divorced … 7. Liking People … 8. Not Liking (some) People … 9. Sexual Experience (and continual experimentation — wink-wink!) … 10. An Understanding for How & When & Why People Speak … 11. Tapping into My Dark Fantasies (read this as you may, or dare) … 12. My Love for One Woman … 13. My Sensitivity and Anger Issues … 14. Not Arguing with SOME Inspiration … 15. Noodling with a Scene … 16. Sleep … 17. Dreams … 18. Deep Thought/Memory … 19. Asking Questions of the Character (through the author, of course, because characters DON’T FUCKING SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES!) … 20. Letting the Characters Speak for Themselves


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

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