Q: Where do you get your ideas?
A: This must be the most persistent question asked of writers, which may mean it’s not getting answered properly. Or perhaps the answers being offered are not popular and a more popular answer is being sought. Or maybe folks just have short memories.
It’s flattering to be asked where one gets one’s ideas, since it implies that the ideas are worthwhile and that others might like to visit that same wellspring themselves.
Now, if what you mean is ‘where did you get the idea for the space elevator’, or for MOM or the N-Heds or whatever - well, that can get a pretty straightforward answer in These Days of the Interwebs. Here’s a fairly comprehensive list of ideas used in the book (and I add to it occasionally).
But if you’re asking ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ in a more general, I’m-learning-how-to-write sense, read on.
A common answer to the question is ‘everywhere’ (Stephen King offers this response in his fine On Writing), but that’s an unsatisfying response on many levels. It’s usually meant well (though sometimes I think it’s offered dismissively). It suggests the hopeful notion that, while there indeed may be nothing new under the sun, there’s also no end of straw that may be spun into gold.
The problem with saying that ideas may be found ‘everywhere’ is that it offers no filter. If ideas may be found everywhere, how can a writer (or any artist) choose the best, most appropriate, most worthwhile ideas among the overwhelming number ‘everywhere’ implies? Without some sort of filter, ideas that are ‘everywhere’ might as well be ‘nowhere’.
A more thoughtful and important answer was offered by Steve Martin in a wonderful, late-2010 Charlie Rose interview. Without hesitation, Martin said ‘creative work is subconscious’. (Start around the 25-minute mark for Martin’s description of how this comes about for him.) I believe this is the best and most thorough answer to this question I’ve seen, and it even informs the response ‘everywhere’. Which is to say: Ideas may be found ‘everywhere’ if one learns how to tap into the subconscious which has already found them and latched on (one hopes) to the better ones.
Now, the subject of how some writers go about tapping into this subconscious wellspring (drugs, alcohol) vs. how others do it (the breaking down of ego and other false self-definitions) is enough to fill a book, and many have been written on the subject. Again, I suggest the Steve Martin video linked earlier, in which he says working with one’s subconscious is an endeavor which improves with practice.
The subconscious helps us discover what to write, but the actual writing is done quite consciously, which is one reason why taking drugs or drinking is not such a great path to better writing. Even if some intoxicant does indeed clear the way to the subconscious, the conscious mind must also be in working order. For the most satisfying results, the subconscious and the conscious minds must be partners.
Speaking for myself, the writing of Patriots was so highly subconscious in nature that I did not discover who the Patriots were until I had finished with the preliminary drafts of all the chapters. I did not begin the book with the idea ‘This is who the Patriots are, and this is how I will conceal their identity throughout the book’. I literally did not know. I also did not know how certain themes would work together (or even if they would) and had to discover that along the way, as well. While this approach means tossing out a lot of what's been written, it does (I believe) lead to a more 'organically' cohesive and satisfying result.
In On Writing, King talks about how writes in a locale where one ‘keeps one’s head down’. He means that he writes from a (literal and metaphorical) place that is unburdened by pretension, a place that is not limited by the constraints of ego or consciousness. Ekhart Tolle’s A New Earth offers what I feel to be advanced thinking on the nature of ego and the internal conflicts it creates. The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts also explores these themes. Steve Martin practices and lives these concepts, and since he has been a wellspring of highly individual thinking his entire life, his is probably a good example to emulate.
Creation is highly dependent on the subconscious but is not a totally subconscious act. The conscious mind must also weigh in, if for no other reason than to edit and fetch coffee. I would say the best ideas are ‘discovered’ subconsciously but largely built and refined by the conscious mind. Among top illustrators and painters, there are sometimes moments called ‘happy accidents’, where the brush may slip and suggest, to the observant subconscious mind, a new direction that points the artist to an unexpected and important new direction. Such ‘accidents’ can inform the entire work in ways not planned from the outset.
The subconscious creation is sometimes called ‘inspiration’, which implies that a supernatural hand (for those who see things in such a way) is at work in the process. (The Middle English origin of ‘inspire’ means ‘divine guidance’, however you care to interpret that.) J.K. Rowling has talked about her ‘Eureka’ moment while waiting for a train. It’s common among the creators of great works (and sometimes even not-so-great works)to recall a calm moment, perhaps even one occurring while they are asleep, when an elegant solution or creation presented itself to them.
Matt Cardin’s outstanding blog Demon Muse focuses on these same core issues. In this post he quotes the novelist Meg Rosoff on ‘finding your writer’s voice by learning to negotiate the relationship between your conscious and unconscious minds’:
“Self-knowledge is essential not only to writing, but to doing almost anything really well. It allows you to work through from a deep place — from the deep, dark corners of your subconscious mind. This connection of subconscious to conscious mind is what gives a writer’s voice resonance. Read a great writer and you’ll feel the resonance – it’s the added dimension of power that can’t quite be explained by mere talent. An ability with words is nice, but it’s not a voice.
Connecting with your subconscious mind is not easy. It requires confronting difficult facts — about yourself and about the world… Of course the biggest, darkest question of all is death. Not an easy question to meet head-on. Some people naturally confront death. Some seem incapable of not confronting it. Woody Allen says that when he was a small child he lay in bed, terrified, contemplating eternal nothingness. So, apparently, did William Golding. Many people, however, live their lives in evasion of the central fact of existence. Of course it is perfectly possible to be a writer without facing death face-on, without years of psychoanalysis, and without a tendency towards depression. But the resonant, powerful, exciting voice that grips you in its thrall is likely to be a voice with a good deal of hard-won wisdom about humanity.…
Now think, for a minute, of your subconscious mind as the horse and your conscious mind as the rider. The goal is a combination of strength, suppleness and softness. If the rider (conscious mind) is too strong, too stiff or unsympathetic, the horse becomes unresponsive and difficult to control, or resistant and dull. The object of dressage is to create an open, graceful exchange of understanding and energy between horse and rider…
A book written with an exchange of energy between the conscious and subconscious mind will feel exciting and fluid in the way that a perfectly planned and pre-plotted book never will. Writing (like riding, or singing, or playing a musical instrument, or painting or playing cricket or thinking about the universe) requires the deep psychological resonance of the subconscious mind.”