Monday, February 16, 2015

Finding Ideas

Someone asked me the other day where I get my ideas from. "You write about so many different things in the newspaper," the person said. "How do you think of all of that?"

Some writers shrug off this question. They claim not to know where their ideas come from. Perhaps they don't. Others want to keep that mystique of being a writer alive, I think. They want it to seem like special magic that only creative souls find.

Here are some quotes from more famous writers about where they get their ideas:

"People always want to know: Where do I get my ideas? They're everywhere. I'm inspired by people and things around me."  - Gwendolyn Brooks, American poet and novelist

"My standard answer is "I don't know where they come from, but I know where they come to, they come to my desk." If I'm not there, they go away again, so you've got to sit and think." - Philip Pullman, English writer

"Anything can set things going--an encounter, a recollection. I think writers are great rememberers." - Gore Vidal, American novelist, playwright, essayist
"I don't believe that a writer "gets" (takes into the head) an "idea" (some sort of mental object) "from" somewhere, and then turns it into words, and writes them on paper. At least in my experience, it doesn't work that way. The stuff has to be transformed into oneself, it has to be composted, before it can grow into a story." - Ursula Le Guin, American novelist and essayist

These are all perfectly good answers. They would not necessarily be my answer.

There are times ideas come to me as if they are flowing across the sky and fall into my head. I envision an entire whirlwind of ideas dancing about, and sometimes I can tap into them and something great falls out and I catch it.

However, that happens infrequently. Mostly my ideas come from the world around me. I get ideas because I work at getting them. 

I listen to what people say in the grocery store. I observe the world around me. I take in what I read and think about how I might change a national story into a local one. That was one of my favorite methods when I was writing 30 articles a month. For instance, right now the measles is in the national news. How might I turn that into a local story? Perhaps I'd go talk to a pediatrician. Or I could write an essay about my own bout with the measles, which I vaguely remember as being a very itchy and quite uncomfortable time. I could elaborate on it, ask my brother if he remembers getting them, too (he was three years younger so he may not), and perhaps talk to others my own age and ask them if they had the measles. Describing how painful the condition was for local people might be an interesting way to go about it.

Other ideas come from my journals. My own life is a great story - so is yours. Everyone has a great story. I do not believe there is such a thing as a boring life. Even someone who is agoraphobic and never leaves home has a story to tell. Imagine what that must be like, to be afraid to leave your home. How does that happen?

The most important way for me to catch and find ideas is to write them down. If I overhear an interesting conversation in the grocery store, if I don't come home and make a note of it, I forget it. That idea is then lost, unless something reminds me.

At one time I had a very long list of possible articles to write for the local newspaper. That was my main writing market and so they were very pointed and directed specifically toward my community. I threw the list away some time ago after I looked it over and decided most of the ideas were stale or had already been done, either by me or someone else. I still keep a list, but it's shorter these days because I don't get out as much.

The calendar offer up all kinds of ideas. There is a National Something or Another going on almost every day of the year. I could write about National Ice Cream Day or National Foot in Mouth Day or whatever. Or I could make up a day and write about why we should have it.

History is also a good place to look to for ideas. Your personal history, your parents' history, or your community's history all offer an endless array of things about which to write. All you have to do is open your mind.

Looking out my window, right this very moment, I see a fine snow falling. I see black angus cows huddling around the watering trough. I see a squirrel trying to outrace the bad weather. In those three sentences, there are an endless things about which one can write.

The trick is to find a way to write about such things so that they matter. If you work at it, you can make any topic interesting. Goodness knows I've spent enough time trying to make government meetings worth reading to know how difficult it can be to take a snoozer of a topic and turn it into something worthwhile.

If you have a passion, then that is something worth writing about. Maybe you like to garden, or you have pets. You can keep a journal about your passion, whatever it is, and eventually you will come up with many things to write about concerning your passion. Perhaps you can even get a book out of it.

Your job is also good for stories. Anyone who works with the public has plenty of stories, because humanity is full of characters and fools who are the subjects of fun stories. Or maybe they are tragic stories, which are also important. Teachers, rescue workers, retail clerks, pizza delivery people, UPS drivers, postal workers - all have interesting stories about the people have they have met and the things they have done.

For example, a few days before Christmas back in 1991 or so, it snowed deeply. We were home thinking we were snowed in. It was late, around 8 p.m. and there was a knock on the door. A brown uniformed UPS man stood there with a package. We could see no truck. He'd not been able to get up our driveway and had walked. Now that is a story, and that fellow was dedicated to his job. I don't know that that would happen in this day and age.

So there's a story there - has the work ethic changed? Wouldn't that make a good article, to compare the work ethic of someone who is 55 to the work ethic of someone who is 25. What, I wonder, would we find?

Ideas are everywhere. The secret is to be open to them. If you are closed-minded, and can only see things your way and are unable to actually hear what people are saying, you may be bereft of ideas. Ideas do not like to beat against walls; instead they like to seep through, grow warm, maybe simmer a while, and then boil over until you actually have to act on them. You've got a great idea in your head when that kind of thing happens.

So if you're looking for ideas, for whatever reason, here is my advice:

  • Open your mind.
  • Listen.
  • Write things down.
  • Revisit what you've heard or written and think about how you can use the information.

That's it. That's the formula for finding ideas. It's pretty easy, really, though I think that first step is where many people stumble. Apparently it is difficult to keep an open mind.

Good luck finding your ideas today!

1 comment:

  1. Well, I pride myself on having an open mind and I have so many ideas, I'd need a couple of lifetimes to bring them to fruition, so you may have something there. I actually keep a file full of ideas. Jot them down and drop them in my folder when I'm straightening up my desk. My problem is not a lack of ideas. It's bringing them to life. My best writing has always flowed. If it doesn't flow out of me naturally, no matter how good the idea is, I think it's a bad story. Flat. Boring. Maybe you did write about this before? Maybe it's passion.


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