Where To Get Ideas

The Dreaded Question

While attending a lecture by Ayelet Waldman, she addressed where she gets her ideas and said “Where do you get your ideas?” is a question writers dread.

Not being famous or published or even known as a writer, I have not been asked this question. Then I wondered… why has it not occurred to me to even ask it? The answer was easy — I have lots of ideas.

Pretending someone asked me the dreaded question, I thought the answer was that I am a liar. It was no surprise to me when I did a quick liar test, and it came out positive. In fact, I would have been disappointed if it told me I was not a good liar, because good liar = good writer, right?

Writers are liars my dear, surely you know that by now?

― Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country

It was news to me until I happened upon Chuck Wendig‘s Beware of Writer article in 2010, which is NSFW and NSFSP (not safe for snake phobics). If any writer tells you, “Oh no, I’m not like that!” remember writers’ pants are on fire… always!

But in order to lie, you must have something to lie about.

Good Liar ≠ Good Ideas

So my answer to the dreaded question was wrong. Lying itself is no idea generator. It’s just fertilizer. (I feel childish satisfaction in the easy comparison between poop and lying.) The more effective the lies, the better the fertilizer to help the seed of an idea grow.

SproutPeople seem to want magic beans that will fall on the ground of their writer wannabe brains and sprout into a giant beanstalk that tickles the sky. The reality is idea seeds are no different from the ones you pick up in the gardening department of your local store. Bring them home and leave them on a shelf, you get nothing. Throw the seeds on the ground in your back yard, and something might sprout, but it isn’t likely to be any good and will die from neglect. Plant them in some decent soil with the right amount of sun, water them when they need it, and something will grow. Treat the plants right, and you get blooms. Keep it up, and you get fruit. It takes work. There are no magic beans.

So where do you get the seeds?

The most direct route to your creative gardening department is to take Boredom Avenue, get lost, and find yourself not in front of the store, but smack dab in the seed aisle. Being bored lets the brain wander and create. It’s easier for that to happen when you aren’t constantly looking for entertainment, distraction, information, socialization. Stop thinking of boredom as a bad thing that must be quashed and let it in.

Another route is What If Road. If you “what if” everything, you’re bound to stumble right into some worthy seed options for your garden. Every story can be boiled down to a “what if.”

  • What if humans unknowingly serve as batteries for our robot overlords?
  • What if a boy and a girl from rival families fall in love?
  • What if raccoons in their secret sewer underground are plotting to take over the world?

Let It Happen

People have tons of ideas every day, but they aren’t allowed to grow. Judge an idea unworthy as soon as it forms and you have a garden full of dirt. Creativity allows weeds. Good stories don’t only come from pretty flowers and vibrant fruit. Sometimes they drift in on the wind, take root, and mar the uniformity of blooms or may even choke all other life out of a garden. That’s a story too. Some of the best ideas are the ones you won’t like. If you dismiss them, you lose. You had an idea; you just deemed it bad.

So turn off your filter, take a What If, dress it up in some fancy liar pants (fire optional), and write yourself a story.

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