Here’s one answer:
(You might recognize this little guy from the Kaiser Permanente TV commercial about “Where do babies come from?” He’s the last kindergartener we see, shrugging his shoulders in puzzlement. This commercial and particularly this image cracks me up every time I see it. Hang on buddy, the rest of us are confused about things, too!)
Anyhow, to the matter at hand. Sometimes people who read or hear my stuff ask me where I get my ideas for what I write. My quick answer is everywhere and nowhere, but that’s not a satisfactory answer so I want to examine the issue a little more closely and be more specific. If I can. If I can’t, this is the end of this post.
Ha! Gotcha for a moment there (depending on your screen display), didn’t I?
I humbly believe I do write a fair amount. I’m incapable of writing longer works such as novels like my friends Nancy Kyme, Heidi Willis, Sheila Lamb and Joelle Perry. I lack the wit and the attention span to write 100,000 to 180,000 words and revise and revise it and have it published and publicized and distributed. I salute these ladies for doing all these things (they all have been featured as Local Writer of the Week in Biscuit City—Joelle in the Global Village edition of that feature)—and it’s a long hard row to hoe as they will tell you. (I did attempt and finish one novel but it is so sorry I have it in a locked box in the basement so it can’t escape. It is truly horrible.)
No, I write short pieces of about 750 to 1500 words that might very charitably be described as Garrison Keilloresque essays. I do four of these a week for Biscuit City (Friday is Poem of the Week, which I don’t usually write, although I could if everyone would want to read a spectacularly uneven collection of poetry.), there have been about 200 of those. I also have about 150 columns I wrote for the News and Messenger over a period of three years. I have written a devotional for my church choir for the past ten years so there about 500 of those, and other things I wrote for my students during a 32-year teaching career, which number about 1000. So that’s a lot of little writings (about 1800 if my math is correct). Where do I get ideas for them all?
Sometimes the pieces are about things that happen to me. (I believe all my friends’ long works are based on their experiences to some extent.) I wrote about my day in traffic court which turned out well for me (charges dismissed because of my good driving record. I was innocent but took the plea deal!) turned into a post called, “The Quality of Mercy.” I have also written about the household projects I have going on. One of the most popular Biscuit City posts was the one about pruning my hollies. (Which were really pruned by the siding crew in November. The hollies will come back. I hope.)
Then there are the things I read and hear in the news. One I haven’t written about yet and am not sure how to go about it in a tasteful way came from a television news report that some pet owners are freeze drying their deceased pets to preserve them and keep them around…forever, I suppose. It takes a year to freeze-dry a medium-sized dog but the result is a dog that looks like it has been stuffed and mounted. But it’s freeze dried. I am not, as Dave Barry likes to say, making this up. I also want to write about Fauquier County Schools and how they close so quickly at the thought of snow. I’m sure there’s more to the story than I think, but I’d like to go into that.
Some of the best writing ideas come from people who read what I’ve written and tell me about their related experiences. When I wrote in the News and Messenger column that I did not like encyclopedias I thought I was going to be injured by people who have a close relationship with their encyclopedias. If you are one of these, I respect your feelings. Just don’t come hurt me for bringing this up again. But I did hear a lot of good stories about using encyclopedias, owning a nice set of them and updating them (World Book) every year, and even selling encyclopedias from one fellow.
I also heard a number of good stories from people in connection with my first column for the Observer newspapers about George Washington’s grist mill, about riding buses and packing lunches and going on field trips and falling in water and having a deathly fear of a large teacher. I love these stories people share with me—they’re the best part of writing for my Loyal Readers.
And then I have my writer’s notebook which I lost for a month in December and found in January. I wrote about it on Facebook and seemed to attract a lot of sympathy. I have decide to leave it next to my desktop computer and rely on squirrelly scraps (a term coined by daughter Alyssa) when I am out and about. I should add that I lost my iPhone for a couple of hours when I put it on the writer’s notebook because both are black. Stealth iPhone, invisible to its owner’s eyes. Anyhow I have about 200 writing ideas in the notebook of various sorts, and I’ll use some of them if I can read what I’ve written.
I believe, as Huck Finn said, there is “nothing more to write” on this subject, at least for me, at least for now. If you ever ask an author, “Where do you get your ideas?” you now have a head start on the answer. Maybe.
One response to “Where Do Writing Ideas Come From?”
I used to get this all the time when I was poet-laureating, and my answer was always "everywhere" as well. There's always something that sets you off–but it helps if you have a relatively quirky brain and sense of humor, or an ability to look at something in a slightly off-kilter way–as you do. One of the reasons I always read Biscuit City.