Tuesday, 13 March 2012


One of the most frequently asked questions (FAQs to those who were reared on the Internet and txt spk) writers receive is: "Where do you get your ideas".  I was fortunate enough to be asked this even before I was out of school.  Back then I described myself as enjoying writing rather than as a writer, but the effect was the same - telling stories had become part of my identity, and on occasion my stories were read to the English class since it shut them up for ten minutes.  According to my peers, at least, I was greater than Shakespeare.

But enough ego-stroking.  The question somewhat baffled me because, like many writers I have subsequently witnessed struggling to answer it, I had no bloody idea.  Inspiration just seemed to hit, but I was reluctant to admit that - it might make it sound like I was cheating.  The cliche runs that talent is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, but I would argue with those measures.  Yet it does seem apt when one considers the inspiration is what seems to hoard all the credit...

Struggling for an answer, I turned the question around on my classmate.  "Where do you look for inspiration?" I asked.  I had met many students who struggled significantly with what to say when it came to essays and the like, and their struggle was generally not out of ignorance.  They knew the answers if prompted, but bearing it out in a narrative form that, as we were always instructed, came to a balanced conclusion was a hurdle they had great difficulty surmounting.

"I just sort of sit and think about it," they'd answer, "And nothing happens."

I did sort of answer along these lines, but not nearly as clearly as I would have liked, as I myself did not fully understand it yet.  But, in short, I told them that this was perhaps the problem.  Inspiration comes to me when I'm not thinking about it, it comes when I am almost making an effort not to think at all.  Sitting on the bus, listening to music, zoning out from the world, I might be struck with a scene that just screams to be fleshed out into a story.  It might make me anti-social, but who am I going to talk to on the bus anyway?  Another flash might occur shortly before dropping off to sleep, which is really annoying because I never did get in the habit of keeping a notebook with me and even if I had, the scrawl of my damaged hand at one in the morning is unlikely to make much sense come tomorrow.  The shower is another favourite place to come across a good idea, and I find it plays out as Stephen King describes, like a palaeontologist stumbling across a fossilised bone by chance, and gradually uncovering it with careful work.  Perhaps even 99% work, but that should not discount the weight of the 1% in this equation.  An 1% may begin in luck, but it requires action to put a writer in the position to strike it lucky.  Consuming stories as much as possible (not just reading, but in film and television and video games and every opportunity that presents itself) and thinking about the craft a lot will help a writer focus, but it is also important to take the time to not focus, to relax and decompress, and just let the imagination go for a stroll.

My core advice would be to never be afraid to write an idea down.  No matter how stupid it might sound, it can always lead to another idea, or seem a much better one from a slightly different perspective.  Not every good writer sits on the train and has their story pull into the station of their mind fully formed by the time they get from London to Edinburgh, but no one should feel that they are expected to pluck pure genius from thin air if they want to be considered creative.  Believe in yourself, believe in your ideas, and believe that you can actually find them without straining your brain trying to look.

Now unwind with today's moment of zen:

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