Got an Idea

Some writers who like to posture complain of people who ask them, “Where do you get your ideas from?” Though I have never been hit with this, I understand why they find this painful. The question tends to lead to another question: why don’t you write about this? Or that? Or (worse), “I have an idea for a novel but I’m no writer. If I tell you, maybe we could work something out?”

I’ve had such offers a few times and, I’ll admit, I’m not afraid of the lawsuits George Lucas got when everybody who doodled spaceships in their college notebooks claimed he stole their designs. You don’t need a degree in popular culture to notice that the first Star Wars movie resembled a PILE of previous works, including E.E. Smith’s Skylark series, Japanese Samurai movies (Lucas admitted he wanted to do a version of The Hidden Fortress), Laurence of Arabia, World War Two combat motifs (the strangely impractical, human operated guns emplacements at opposite poles of the Millenium Falcon), etc.

But popularity can do strange things. What was first seen as a giddy, low-budget borrowing from so many previous sources has become an icon. More people “quote” Star Wars in some way than all the sources combined.

This shouldn’t surprise creative types. They point out, correctly, that–with fiction, at least–the thing that inspires you to write is not as important as the writing itself. Most creative people get too many ideas, or never enough. We rarely find a balance of inspiration.

In non-fiction, where content still has some relevance, ideas are important enough to be stolen. One editor told me that he liked an idea I had pitched him for an article, but he wanted to give it to someone else, and would I mind? No, I lied.

People read non-fiction for what they presume will be in it. They may be teased by a title, or they know the writer from some other work, but what brings them to the bottom of the page is usually how much they got of what they wanted.

Regardless of the result, ideas for creative work are valuable. It took me many years to discover that other people–MOST other people–don’t get them. They’re content to let other people do their dreaming for them. That isn’t a bad thing: I go to movies, I watch TV, I read a book a week.

But the best ideas are my own. They’re like seeds. Not every one finds fertile ground. Not every one grows. And, of those that grow, how many survive the lawnmower of indifference, or those people who say, “This is good but…are you sure this what you want to do with your life?”

With me, ideas come unexpectedly, generally when I’m nowhere near a place to write them down.I get some when I’m exercising and let my mind wander. I get some when I’m in “between” places–waiting to board a plane in an airport, stuck in traffic, or on vacation someplace.

I try to remember them. Comedian Steve Allen told me that he dictated his thoughts into a what were then tape recorders. Other writers keep pocket notebooks, or have a place on their cell phones where they store their nuggets.One writer I know got so many ideas while in the shower that he bought a special marking board with pens so he could record them. I just try to remember them.

The more they stay in my head, the more elaborate they become. When I write them down, and add to them, they can grow into scenes in a novel.

I used to try to write novels in order: start at what I imagined was a beginning and go straight to the end. With practice, I hoped to make the writing like a samurai sword cut: one clean slice.

But it never works out that way. What is the beginning for me typically is in the middle of the book, with stuff added before and after. I may not know how it’s all going to end, and then get an idea for an ending, write it, and change the ending.

Or I may hit a wall and go for a run or cook some elaborate feast and come up with a new idea that only requires rewriting a hundred or so pages.

If anybody out there doesn’t know it already, permit me to be the first to say it: creative accomplishments are NEVER sword cuts, they’re never a straight line, they never go smoothly from start to finish.

But they begin with an idea. In a world where so many people are bemoaning the end of this and that, it’s nice to get the kind of idea that says, “you ain’t seen nothing yet!”




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