A reader asked me recently where I get ideas for my stories and poetry. This is an important question, especially for young and hopeful authors. I remember a time not-so-long-ago when I wondered the same thing.
It’s not a mystery. We treat it as one, but it’s not a mystery. Somehow we fall into the trap of believing that ideas are difficult to obtain. Many times, in fact, we treat an idea like buried treasure – like we are following obscure landmarks and faded lines on an old, fragile, curled piece of parchment, trying to find our way to some brightly marked “X” where the perfect story is hidden in a heavy, ornate, impenetrable pirate chest and locked with an iron chain. We allow ourselves to believe that others before us have conquered this quest and we are ill-equipped to follow in their steps. If you’ve allowed yourselves to think of ideas in this light, I have good news for you.
Ideas are free.
Did you get that?
Ideas are free.
No one has a monopoly on ideas.
If you can think, you can come up with story ideas.
I realized this one busy Saturday morning at StuffMart. I coincidentally found myself – repeatedly – in the same aisle as a woman with a stern eye. She would stop when someone stood in her way and wait, glaring, as if she could bore into their heads the humility of knowing they were obstructing her path. As if she could require penance for such blatant lack of consideration. I noted person after person, completely oblivious to her dark gaze, and wondered what she could be thinking. Did she wish them a million miles away? Did she wish them chopped up and packaged into the StuffMart brand hamburger? Did she loathe them? Did she simply feel invisible? Was she lonely, perhaps? Miserable? What was happening behind those hard eyes? But with all the evil-eye-ing, she never opened her mouth. Not once did she step forward and say, “Excuse me,” or “Could I just sneak by you?” or “You’ve been standing in front of the stewed tomatoes for fifteen minutes talking to someone about your ex’s brother’s girlfriend’s dog and I’d really just like to get my tomatoes and go now.” She just waited. Expecting. Being irritated.
If looks could kill, I thought.
What if it worked, I wondered? What if that woman’s look could really kill you? Or even foretell your death? What if a lifeless, lonely woman roamed the streets, each day choosing one person, looking them in the eye without a word, and they would just know – somehow instinctively – they had received the mark of her gaze and would die within twenty-four hours?
For days, I could think of nothing but the silent woman with the Death Gaze. There were two lessons for me in this experience. First, on a practical, day-to-day note, it will never do to silently expect others to know what you need and want. These are unrealistic expectations – not because they are unspeakably demanding, but because they are uncommunicated. If you cannot tell another person that you need to get to the stewed tomatoes, then they may simply not realize they are failing to meet your needs – or worse, standing in the way of you achieving whatever it is you need to do to get those tomatoes. A very practical lesson. Say what you need. Even if it’s in a journal or a blog or to your cat. Say it.
The second lesson, however, was that ideas are all around us in the form of persons and circumstances and hopes and fears and dreams. If we pause and allow ourselves to question and imagine possibilities, then we have access to a trove of ideas – no pirate maps needed. And that’s all an idea is: A possibility.
Ideas are a dime a dozen, friends. You don’t need to find some undiscovered storyline. Yes, avoid doing what everyone else has done if you can help it, but no – don’t trap yourself into thinking that your writing must be entirely unique. It won’t be. See, the stories don’t change – not really. Every story follows a sort of pattern of tension and resolution, and every story draws from our experiences as both writers and readers. What changes is voice. What changes are the characters and how they respond to the tension and how they find resolution (and what resolution, in fact, would be satisfactory).
So forget the parchment – the lines are fading, anyway. Write the stories you long to write. Write the stories you long to read. Write the stories you long to share with the world. Find your voice, and let you yourself be the unique element of your work.
What ideas can you pull from your routine today? Send me a note in the comments or via the Contact page.
Also, just a reminder if you’re looking for even more of my writing or prompts to feed your creativity, the following books are available for a reasonable price:
Sunday Memories – Volume I – Belonging (currently 15% off!)
Let me hear from you, friends!
From the shores of Wicket Lake,