Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Where do you get your ideas? And all that jazz.


Supposedly one of the most exasperating questions a writer can get is “Where do you get your ideas?” Presumably this is because we’re not allowed to answer with: “My grandfather bequeathed to me an ancient and magical book, and within these goblin-encrusted pages new ideas breed like rutting succubae…” or “I stole them off my mate”. I have to admit I can’t recall ever having been asked (although I do occasionally get: “You enjoy that, do you?” and “Why, Jennifer, why?”)

I think it’s a largely impossible question to answer, because most of the time we just don’t know. I was considering this yesterday when I started writing a short story out of the blue. I haven’t written a short for yonks, and when the initial flurry of activity had died down, I did stop and think: “Where on earth did that come from?”

You’d think there would be something. Was I looking at a particular word at the time, or was it the tinny beat of someone’s MP3 player that triggered it? I don’t know. The thing is, short story writing is like hunting an animal, something lithe and speedy with a twitching nose and twisty little horns. Once you get the scent of this shy creature, you’re off, streaking through the forest after it; you follow it wherever it twists and hops and leaps, and you can’t stop until you’ve got the bugger.

And then when you’re sitting down, picking fresh deer meat from your teeth (or idea meat, see what I did there?), you stop and think: where did that come from? And for that matter, where am I? Because now there’s no following the trail back, and even if you did, there would just be more of the same forest, looking back at you blankly.

That’s why writing can sometimes be so frustrating, because there is no faking that out of the blue moment. Not even if you think really, really hard (I’ve tried). What you do end up doing, I suspect, is building up a set of weapons with which to encourage these reluctant ideas from your flighty subconscious. In the past, I have found the following to be helpful: going for a walk, having a shower, reading a really good book, flicking through a copy of Brewers Phrase and Fable (always worth doing anyway), being somewhere quiet, being somewhere noisy, looking at art, and getting a decent night’s sleep.

I think we all develop our own tools, and you instinctively go with what works. Because really, as long as the ideas do keep on coming, I’m not going to think too closely about where they come from. The tricksy little bastards.

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