My presentation at the Rain Forest Writers's Retreat this year was on getting ideas. This is an intimidating subject on a couple of levels because it's really a topic that you might present to beginning writers (the Rain Forest crew had a ton of non-beginners), and because I can't really answer the question. Nonetheless, here are my lecture notes for the presentation. When I have too much time to prepare for a presentation, my notes begin to look like an essay.
So, because several people asked, here are the notes:
I. No matter what I say today, idea generation is still, basically a mystery
. Peter Elbow made a similar point when he tried to explain what learning how to write was like. He said, imagine a world where the people are trying to touch the ground, but for some reason they’ve come to believe that the only way to get to the ground was to reach higher. They’re walking around with their hands in the air, bemoaning the fact that they can’t touch the ground. Some people, though, can touch the ground, they just have a hard time teaching other people to do it, so they try tricks, like telling the people to tie their shoes, and while they’re down there to wave their hands around. This works, but the folks who do it also have a tough time explaining how they did it since the idea that the ground can only be reached by straining upward is intrinsically ingrained in everyone. Getting ideas is like that. People get them all the time, but they don’t have a way to tell anyone else how to do it, and when they get right down to it, they might be able to tell you when and where they got the idea, and what they were doing when they got it, but the actual mechanics of why an idea appeared in their head is still unknown. One moment there was nothing, and the next there was an idea, just like that.
II. Almost all anecdotal evidence on how authors get ideas is interesting but impractical
. I work with an English teacher who is also a poet. He talks to his classes about inspiration. One of his favorite stories is that he was hiking one day and he saw a solitary crow on a power line. He said that image stuck with him and became the basis of his favorite poem. Of what use is that story to a student? He could take his whole class out to see a crow on a power line, and not one of them would get an idea.III.On the other hand, I knew another English teacher who would take his English class out to the canyons to watch him dive off a cliff with a hang glider. They all seemed to find plenty to write about.
IV. Annie Dillard says that her best writing environment is the one that is most unstimulating.
She likes a room with no view. What does seem common is that writers often do best in an unfamiliar environment. I’d read that meant that for some men, they write best at home, and for some women, they write best anywhere but home. The call of the house is too loud for some, evidently.
V. I read an interesting book called DAILY RITUALS
, by Mason Currey, which was about the working habits of 161 artists, composers, and authors. What I thought was interesting was how many of them incorporated long walks into their day. That was probably the most common behavior between them (followed closely by lots of coffee).VI.So, what I’m going to talk about will be in many ways the equivalent of trying to get you to touch the ground by misdirection. We won’t be trying to touch the ground: instead we’ll do something else and occasionally run into the ground, more or less by accident.VII.Freewriting
: This is stream of consciousness writing championed by Peter Elbow in WRITING WITHOUT TEACHERS. The idea is that the act of writing will produce ideas faster and more reliably than the act of being paralyzed in front of your keyboard waiting for an idea. Freewriting is timed writing (say 10 minutes). You can write with no prompt, or you can start with your reaction to a quote or thought from someone else. I think it’s productive to look at the summary of a plot on the back of a book, and then use that as my starting point. Freewriting means idea production at the keyboard through active effort. This activity can be used at any time in the writing process, where you may be trying to figure out things about your character’s motivation, or you are wondering what is supposed to happen next. Stop at the stuck point, open your notebook or another document, and do the freewriting.VIII.Use writing prompts
. The web is filled with them. Do a search for “writing prompts.” You can even narrow your search to “science fiction writing prompts,” “fantasy writing prompts,” or “horror writing prompts. Bruce Holland Rogers wrote his brilliant short story, “The Dead Boy at Your Window,” because he was responding to a writing prompt in a workshop, which was, “Begin a story with a lie.” He won both the Pushcart Prize and the Bram Stoker Horror Award for that story.IX.Writing exercises
: a random first line generator, like http://writingexercises.co.uk/firstlinegenerator.php
will give you a first line like, “As the policeman pulled back the sheet, she knew immediately that . . .” or “The victim had tried to write something as he was dying.”X.Co-writing
. Sometimes two heads are better than one. It’s an interesting exercise to work on a piece with another writer. Brainstorming and the inevitably different approach your partner takes will produce new thinking.
XI. Without know how ideas come, many people talk about the conditions where ideas seem to come to them
. One is while doing any activity that requires them to be awake, but doesn’t require much thought. It needs to be an activity where the mind can wander. This list includes:
a. Long drives
b. Mowing the lawn
c. Washing dishes
d. Jogging, walking or biking
e. Taking a shower
f. Painting the house or a fence
g. Knitting or sewing
h. Proctoring a test
i. Preparing a meal
k. Raking leaves
XII. The other activity where people frequently report getting ideas is where their brain has had a chance to disengage from the busy world
a. Going to sleep
c. Waking up but staying in that drowsy, free associative state
d. Drinking/drugs (not recommended)
e. Sickness (particularly if they’re bedridden)XIII.It is possible to actively provoke ideas, or at least put yourself in an idea-rich environment. These are activities that creative writing teachers will use:
a. One of my favorite memories of being in an English class was my junior year when the teacher had told us that our next assignment was going to be a short story. When we came to class the next day, she’d covered the walls with photographs from magazines, and art prints. All four walls were covered. There were hundreds of images. She told us to walk around the room, studying the prints, and then when one “spoke to us,” to write the story that the print suggested. This was basically the same prompt as the the VISUAL JOURNEYS anthology in 2007, where the authors were given a set of science fiction art to choose from to write a story to, or the 2003 anthology, IMAGINATION FULLY DIALATED featuring the artwork of Alan M. Clark that operated on the same principle.
b. So, go to an art museum.
c. Listen to moody music with the lights low.
d. Go on a long, solitary hike, especially in a strange place or at an unusual time (like 3:00 am).
e. Sit on the beach or by a stream (moving water seems to be very inspirational)
f. Watch a fire
XIV. When I assign a short story to my Science Fiction class, I’m dealing with an audience who didn’t necessarily sign up for writing a story. It is a lit class, after all. So when I give them the assignment, bunches of them are at a loss for coming up with an idea. To help them, I give them the “What If” sheet. Show them the What If sheet.
XV. Ideas do not come full blown. They develop as the story is written
XVI. Where to you get ideas? How would you answer the question from a sincere, beginning writer who would really like some help?