Where do you get your ideas?

"Where do you get your ideas?"  It never occurred to me to be annoyed by this question until I heard other writers grousing about being asked. They would often launch into too-rehearsed riffs about idea clearing houses or super stores.

While growing up, I was often asked where I got my curls.  I had one friend who always used to jump in and answer for me.  At Karcher Mall.  At K-Mart.  At Curls R Us.  She'd laugh and tell me how tired she was of the question---and I smiled with her.

But when she wasn't there?  I'd talk about my grandfather and how much he hated his curly hair, how he'd wet it before bed and sleep with a nylon stocking over his scalp, anything to tame the wildness.

Later in life, I'd confess to others how much I hated my hair and I'd talk about my grandfather again.  I'd remember the day we were out boating and I sat at the bow, my hair whipping everywhere, making me crazy, and my grandfather leaned over to my grandmother and much-too-loudly told her how beautiful it was.  I wanted to scream.  It was his hair. Maybe no one else would understand my frustration, but I always thought he would.

Even later, I'd talk about my grandfather's passing and the way my love for him somehow dripped with my tears into those very same curls, how I finally internalized his love for me and I never cut my hair again.

"Where'd you get your curls?"  That was an invitation for me to talk about my grandfather.  Maybe the person asking really wanted to know what brand of curls-in-a-box they should buy, but they got an answer about my grandfather.  It didn't occur to me to be annoyed, even though the question clearly did annoy my friend.

I'm the same way with "Where do you get your ideas?"  I apparently hear a much deeper question than most people hear.  Quite possibly, I hear more than the questioner is really asking.  (Curls In A Box? Aisle 5B. Bottom row.)

When I hear, "Where do you get your ideas?" I hear a question about the elements in a writer's life that give rise to story.

Yes, I do have more ideas than I'll ever be able to write.  They bubble to the surface all the time, often while I'm trying to finish another story and have no time to pay attention.  Some of them are good ideas.  Some of them are crap.  But there they are, bubbling--possibly bright and cheerful like an artesian well, more likely thick and explosive like a mud pot.

All the same, the underlying question about ideas is a fascinating one.  "Why?"  Why do some people live their lives with an endless bounty of stories waiting to be written while others do not?  Why do song writers hear music?  Why do poets experience bursts of perfect words?  Why do sculptors see images in stone?  Why do photographers see the perfect framing for a landscape while I'm pointing and clicking? Why?  Where does this creative inspiration come from? Why is it present in some people and seemingly absent in others?

And what about the variances within an individual's life?  Despite the fact that I have more ideas than I'll ever be able to write, I've also experienced times when the bubbling stops.  In my last post, I wrote about creating order and meaning in our lives---about the way our writing output changes as our personal paradigms shift.

Is this a writing block?  Maybe.  I think it has more to do with creative exhaustion---creation in another part of our lives taking precedence over creating stories.  Maybe we're belly-hopeful with child or designing a curriculum or building a house.  Our energies go elsewhere, like a stream diverted.

So, yes, there are times that are less conducive to writing.  We all know that.  Crises happen.  Schedules change.  Strangers bring messages that knock us back---all the stuff of stories, yet painfully real.  But if there are conditions that make writing more difficult, is the inverse true as well?

Are there ideal conditions that give rise to story?

I think yes.

Given time, shifting paradigms lead to epiphanies we need to communicate with others.  We pull out our personal creative tool set and get to work.  If we are painters, we paint.  If we are writers, we write---but even among writers there is such variation.  One writer might respond to the death of a parent through memoir, another through horror, another through a quirky young adult fantasy.  The result might focus on life or death, light or shadow, it might be dark or humorous---or darkly humorous.  The brain that filters experience and produces art contains Whitman's multitudes.

How a writer filters and distills experience into story has much to do with voice which has much to do with personality which has much to do with not just where but how we stand in the world in relation to everyone and everything else.  And even this statement has much to do with who I am, a writer of the American West, a firm believer in rugged individualism and independent thinking.  I do not see culture giving rise to literature.  I see individuals in a culture reacting to specific situations in a specific context---and stories materializing out of that individual experience.

Maybe the question I hear isn't so much, "Where do you get your ideas?" but "Why do you get your ideas?" or "How do you get your ideas?" or "When do you get your ideas?" or "Why do those ideas reveal themselves to you?"

And really, maybe it's the depth of the mystery that leads writers to give the easy answer.  "Aisle 5B.  Bottom row."


  1. We are the sum of our imagination and experiences. That's why we learn as we write more that it doesn't matter if the same story concept is written by multiple writers. It's our spin from who we are that individualizes the writing. We are truly unique in how we conceptualize an idea and then execute it. I find that inspiring.

  2. "How a writer filters and distills experience into story has much to do with voice which has much to do with personality which has much to do with not just where but how we stand in the world in relation to everyone and everything else." ~ so well said!

    Thank you for that perspective...and your grandfather's :-)

  3. I like your grandfather and agree - your curls are beautiful!

    I'm ALWAYS surprised when I share a story idea and people actually look interested. One of the main reasons I need to write is I get bored with the ideas in my head. They're old news, staid, tired . . . boring. Getting them down on paper grants them a reprieve cuz maybe someone would be interested. LOL

  4. And - the happiest of birthdays to you yesterday, Johanna!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!11

  5. Oh, Johanna, have you not heard the Coping Bean Theory? (And why didn't you guys warn her about me and the coping beans?) I didn't come up with this, my friend Kelly did; I'm only responsible for spreading it relentlessly.

    It goes like this: An individual has a certain number of beans (I think of them as colorful and sweet, like jelly beans) for getting through life. Coping beans can be created, destroyed, used, or taken out of use and returned to the availability pool. You can get more with age and experience, you can lose some due to chronic health conditions and stuff like that, but you always have a finite number.

    Creativity requires quite a lot of coping beans. Stress also requires quite a lot of them. Loss, of a job or a house, requires even more to get through. Loss of a loved one...years of coping beans. It took me almost five years to complete a full-length first draft after my folks died, and I wrote the bulk of that while in cancer treatment (but I didn't have the idea then). Sometimes the creative outlet itself becomes a coping bean.

    My point is that when the idea fountain goes dry, it means the coping beans are already in play. And that's the Coping Bean Theory. I feel like I should put a (tm) sign after it or something, LOL.

    Lovely post, by the way. I love the story about your grandfather.

    P.S. I hate the "where do you get your ideas" question because I never know how to answer it. The truth is that they magically appear in my mind on no particular schedule. "I dunno" seems like such a cop-out answer, but it's the truth.

  6. Happy belated Birthday! It never occurred to me to be annoyed with the "ideas" question either. It's a great conversation opener and such an easy answer.
    I love stories about family. We base so much on our families. Both good and bad.

  7. PS I started taking some medication last year that---drum roll, please---made my straight hair curly. (not Liz, Meredith, or Johanna curly, but curly none the less) YEAH! Having had both now I vote for curly.

  8. Thanks so much, Cyndi. I now have a daughter with that same mess of hair and it's fascinating to watch her coming to terms with it.

  9. Thank you, Liz! It was so great to see you yesterday. Thanks to you and Jenna for lunch!

    So funny that you're surprised people love your story ideas. Of course they do. What a twisted mind you have.

  10. You and Kelly definitely need a TM behind that Coping Beans theory. It makes so much sense.

  11. You do have great stories, Peggy. What a fun side effect from medication too. I wish they were all so good. Thanks for the birthday wishes! I had a great day. :)

  12. First ... Happy Birthday, Johanna.

    Second ... my ideas come from the mad-inner-workings of my demented-slightly-askew mind ... influenced and shaped through years of people watching, listening and remembering.

    That's the best I could come up with. Truth is ... who the heck knows where the creative angst comes from or where it will lead us ... just be glad you've got it :)

  13. The mad-inner-workings of your demented-slightly-askew mind. I love it! Thanks for the birthday wishes, Florence. :)

  14. These are words I've thought about (concerning how we get our ideas) but never have seen written this way. Thank you.

  15. People used to say to me, "There was a little girl, Who had a little curl...." I did not like it. : - )

    When people ask where I get my ideas, I tell them I dream them up--literally. The entire first scene of my novel "When the Moon Is Gibbous and Waxing" (released last month by Etopia Press for Kindle and Nook--pardon the shameless self-promotion) is a nightmare I had. It led to outlines for two more books, also. And several of the novels I have outlined in Scrivener originated with dreams. Once a dream sets the imagination free, several ideas tend to grow from one stem. But the dream is the seed.

  16. Your book looks terrific, Angela! Now it's on my list to read.

    I am sometimes inspired by dreams, but I rarely see plot development in them. I am more likely to see the relationship between characters more clearly.

  17. I think a lot of my ideas do come from a near constant uncertainty about the nature of reality, and/or the difference between perception and reality. All one has to do is turn on a tv or radio to see or hear how diverse perceptions can be. It causes me to have a lot of "what if" kind of questions, and those sometimes lead to ideas.

    Thanks for this, Johanna.

  18. I hear you, John. I can be floating along, happy in my own world and then I hear something and people nod--and I can't quite get my head around it. Reality is a shifting thing.

    This makes me think you're going to like some new pages I've written. I'll email you.


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