From what I hear tell, the most common question asked of bestselling authors is the dreaded, “Where do you get your ideas?” I can only imagine how many times Stephen King (my hands-down all-time-favorite author) has been asked this little gem; with such a varied and profuse body of work, the question truly does beg asking. I mean, for those of you familiar with even a sampling of SK’s books, it’s pretty obvious that he fears no genre–and I’ve throughly enjoyed them all.
But where do the ideas come from? Therein lies the crux of the matter. I’ve heard and read so many different answers to that question–but the underlying message woven through each has been simple: Pay attention.
Stories can be found anywhere. Everywhere. Ideas are literally sprouting up all around us–right under our noses. But what sets the most successful authors apart from those of us that are striving to become such is their ability to cull–extract, if you will–singular moments during the course of their daily rounds, moments that have creative potential. A brief snapshot in time that resonates with the writer can then be reimagined and reshaped, simply by asking the question, “What if…?”
Step away from the keyboard–keep a pen and paper handy at all times…even on your bedside table. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve awakened in the wee hours of the night, the details of an amazing/terrifying/revelatory dream still vividly imprinted in my head–such rich and creative fodder! And yet, even as I drifted back to sleep, that treasure trove of inspiration was already fading from memory…and by the time my feet hit the floor in the morning, it was gone. Just a lingering sense of a strong, inexplicable emotion. A simple pad of paper and pen–all it takes to preserve these moments. Having the ability to put down in words what you were feeling, seeing, hearing, during these nocturnal adventures are the key to being able to actually explain why something was so scary/funny/amazing to you. In the manner of dreams, this is usually a difficult feat when you wait until morning to convey your dreams and how they made you feel: “Jeez, I had a dream that there were these HUGE trees in my back yard–I mean, like, bigger than the Empire State Building–and, for some reason, I was so scared of them that I started to cry.” If you had been able to write down everything as soon as you woke up, you might have been able to document the details that fade by morning…like maybe the trees were leaning precariously, or there could have been something else threatening going on–menacing storm clouds in the sky, unfamiliar people around you…
This too, is paying attention.
Of course, if you just take note of everything around you during your waking hours as well, there’s bound to be plenty of inspiration. The guy in the grocery store picking up and carefully inspecting 15 different apples before turning to the bin of pears and selecting the first one he touched, without giving it a second glance…the ridiculously large, mysteriously reappearing frost heaves on the back road you take to work each day…the daily efforts and antics of the squirrels around the backyard birdfeeders. You get the picture.
To just slow down enough to take note of the notable–this is the first, and probably most difficult, habit we need to form in order to truly see these golden moments of creative inspiration for what they are: story ideas.
Now, let’s go write something.