|Joyce Wycoff Website|
“Where did you get your idea?” It’s a common question, and the easy answer is: everywhere!
It has always been a hobby of mine to try to track ideas back to their source, and I somewhat agree with Aaron Gilbreath, who says in a Green Mountains Review article, "Asking where ideas come from is a bit like asking where the stars draw their dust. It came from somewhere, but mostly, it was just there."
|Where do ideas come from?|
He also said: "The more you write, the more you learn how to generate ideas. Even if you still depend
on happenstance, you develop habits. Whether the places you search are on the streets or in books or the caverns of your mind, you learn to recognize the fertile locations where subjects turn up, in the same way an urban hawk learns where the pigeons roost, and you visit those locations frequently."
And, that's probably the primary reason for asking where other people get their ideas ... to more easily recognize where you get yours. Writer Steve Almond quotes a bit of wisdom received early in his own life from an elderly mentor: The only thing that matters is the thing you can’t stop thinking about, he told me. Dress it up how ever you like, son, but tell me the goddamn truth.
Gilbreath tells us “I keep my antennae up all the time. Whether I read a local newspaper, or talk to the guy selling me a doughnut at a small-town coffee shop, I’m reflexively on alert for a compelling story.”
Good advice, but in the meantime, it is fascinating to hear exactly how some of the authors who will be with us at the Sierra Writers' Conference found the ideas that led to their books. Here are three more examples:
Jordan Fisher Smith: My writing ideas have come to me in the way that the shapes of constellations must have, to the ancients. I get interested in certain facts or notions—the individual stars, as it were—and they hang around for months or years. I can’t stop thinking about them. So I begin meandering research on these individual points of light on a dark background—reading, visiting places where important events happened, interviewing people, going to conferences.
In the process, without intending to and certainly without forcing it on them, I begin to draw shapes and relationships between the points, forming some larger context or picture—a goat, an archer, an eagle, a bear. There is, in my writing—maybe in all writing—an ordering of reality, a forming of context. There is in mine, anyway. My nonfiction work ties together natural history, human history, ideas, character, and the mysterious workings of the human heart and passions. That’s how I work. (Lesson: pay attention to the things you can't stop thinking about.)
Dimitri Keriotis: Years ago I heard an interview with the late, great memoirist, Frank McCourt. Given McCourt's eventful life, the interviewer understandably asked him how he selected the events he wrote about, especially in Angela's Ashes. McCourt said that he scanned his life with a kind of metal detector, and where there was activity, he dug down because that's where the good stuff was, the stuff with emotional charge. (Lesson: look for those emotional charges.)
This approach resonated with me, especially because I am wonderfully haunted by memories of pivotal moments, some of which I'd unsuccessfully tried to explore in pieces of creative nonfiction. Early in my MFA program, I overlooked a deadline and had to write a story for a workshop in two days. I looked out at a huge blank page and panicked. Then I asked myself what I wanted to write about. A particular memory instantly bubbled up, and I knew I could work with it. The piece poured from my pen, chiefly because of the emotions attached to this experience of battling my own hubris. I fully understood and continued to follow McCourt's approach, which is that of many who say, "Write what you know." (Lesson: impossible deadlines sometimes free us to make connections with deeper material.)
Some of my stories very closely reflect experiences I've had, while others contain not more than a mere seed. Regardless, all stem from something I know and have emotional connection to. In building the stories, I pull from random memories or others' memories--anything to give the story what it needs--as long as the major elements come from my gut and not my mind. For me this process leads to lovely discovery and understanding.
Bob Jenkins: Azriel, the heroine of Azriel Dancer, is named for a young girl who wanted to be a professional dancer. I met many her many years ago up on the San Juan Ridge where the events of my novel begin. I liked her name, Azriel, the kind of hippy-esque moniker you find in north Nevada County. Other than this whimsical connection, there is no resemblance between my fictional character and the real girl. (Lesson: always record names that strike you. They’re gold.)
On the other hand, the Kali Yuga in the title of the four-part series (Daughters of the Kali Yuga of which Azriel Dancer is Book One), has profound significance. Hindu scriptures describe the arc of human existence as having four distinct epochs (yugas). The fourth of these, also called “The Iron Age,” is the yuga belonging to the Lord of Demons, Kali. It is He who rules the Apocalypse, the End of Days, the Kali Yuga, the final showdown between good and evil.
Lastly, allow me a deep bow of respect to Alan Weisman, from whose book, The World Without Us, the inspiration for Daughters of the Kali Yuga rose. Weisman’s remarkable thought experiment, turned topsy-turvy my own view of the earth, our impact on it, our future upon it. (Lesson: pay attention to anything that turns your own thinking upside down. What questions does it spark in you?)
Proposing that humankind suddenly and inexplicably vanishes, Weisman describes the planet in the days, years, and eons that follow our departure. Perhaps it takes a million years, or a hundred million, but the planet heals itself. Life continues. Continents drift into unfamiliar shapes. Strange avian creatures fill the skies. Seas replenish with astonishing marine life. Adaptable new species roam lands once encrusted with cities, factories, refineries, and nuclear power plants.
How would mother earth recover? What if a mysterious cataclysm wiped out most, but not all of humankind? Imagine a village of farmers, shepherds, smiths, and healers, who by accident of topography, beneficent winds, and, perhaps, a bit of divine intervention, survive the apocalypse. Who would they be? What would they do? Where would they go? How would they make themselves worthy of their second chance? (Lesson: "What if ..." is a very powerful idea magnet.)
Wrap Up: Go places. Be curious. Listen. Read. Follow your heart. Pay attention to the blips ... those spikes in interest that make you say "Really?" "Why?" "How?" "OMG!" Those blips are seeds that can grow into books ... if they're tended carefully.
For more about where ideas come from, click here to see Part 1 of this thread.