Monday, September 8, 2014

Generating Ideas

Image courtesy of jesadaphorn at
Stephen R. Donaldson is one of my all-time favorite writers.  In the afterword to one of his books*, he has some really interesting things to say about how writers get their ideas. He writes,
Most writers hate the question, “Where do you get your ideas?”

This is because the answer tends to be at once ineffably mysterious and excruciatingly mundane. We are all in love with the magic of the imagination—otherwise we wouldn’t be able to survive as creative artists—but none of us can explain how it works.  In a sense, writers don’t get ideas: ideas get writers.  They happen to us. […] But we can never force ourselves to be truly creative.  The best we can do is to teach ourselves receptiveness—and trust that ideas will come.

However, once the magic of the imagination has been accepted as given, any specific answer to the question often becomes almost violently anti-creative: for instance, “Well, I got that particular idea off a can of Lysol disinfectant in the men’s room at Circle K.” […] Such an answer may be perfectly accurate, but who wants to say it out loud?  In these cases, the concrete source of the idea seems to demean its underlying imaginative magic. (221-222)
The first time I read this, I laughed, because a lot of people do ask me where I get my ideas, and I never know what to say.  All too often, the answer is, “I don’t know.” I don’t even have something as concrete as Donaldson’s can of Lysol.

I have had some ideas come from dreams.  This sounds exotic, but it is usually only a small part of the dream which inspired the idea.  Once that I admit that the dream was also full of betta fish and My Little Ponies, I feel far sillier than Donaldson admitting his ideas come from cleaning products in men’s rooms.

Most of the time, I do feel like ideas just happen to me.  It’s like I’m going around minding my own business, when boom an idea hits me, noising demanding my attention. It’s sort of like being mugged.  Well, except that having an idea is awesome, and being mugged is terrible and horrifying.

So, if I’m basically agreeing with Donaldson’s notion that “ideas get writers” (221) and that ideas “happen to us” (221), why is “Generating Ideas” the title of today’s post?

Largely, it’s because “Generating Ideas” makes more sense than “Making Ideas Happen to You.” It’s impossible to make the ideas happen to you, anyway.  We are better off thinking in Donaldson’s terms—you can’t force yourself to get ideas, but you can be receptive to them. Fortunately, there are ways to proactively make yourself more receptive to ideas.  In effect, these are ways to generate ideas.

So, what kind of things can you do to make yourself more open to ideas and creativity?

Use writing prompts

One of the easiest and most fun ways to get ideas is to use writing prompts.  A writing prompt is generally a short cue of some kind, telling you what to write. For example, here’s one from Writing Basics, a special publication of Writer’s Digest: "On the side of the highway: milk jugs, tire chunks and an open box of jewelry, glistening in the sunlight.  Explain how it all got there” (22).

Writing prompts are so fun and popular that people sell books full of them.  But not all writing prompts need to be as elaborate as the one above.  One of my all-time favorites was introduced to me by a friend.  First, you get a title for a story, chosen at random. Then, for the next ten minutes, you write a story to go along with that title. It’s quick, easy, and fun.  All you need is a timer, a way to write, and an way to randomly choose a story title.  What my friend likes to do for this is to set her iPod on shuffle, and the first song title that appears is the title for her story. Then she sets her timer and starts writing away.  I like to use a random title generator such as the one on Michael Coorlim's website.

While you probably won’t end up using half of the things you write from prompts, you will probably find that they can spark ideas.  (I wrote an 8,000 word short story based on an idea that I had because of a writing prompt.)  Whether you find that prompts give you life-changing ideas or none at all, they will definitely sharpen your writing skills—and you’ll have a lot of fun.

Read thought-provoking books

One of the best ways to be receptive to ideas is to put yourself in a thinking mindset. Reading is especially good for this—even if it’s just a novel you like, it automatically puts your mind into creativity mode.  While you are reading, your mind is an active participant—while it is certainly not creating the words on the page, it has to take the shapes from the page, interpret them as words, understand those words, and then visualize what those words are depicting.  This does, in a way, require creativity on your part.  After all, if you ever talk with somebody about how you picture a character in a book versus the way they picture that character, you’ll find that your mental images are not necessarily the same. 

If you combine the creativity mode with something deeply thought-provoking—books such as Watership Down (Richard Adams), Anthem (Ayn Rand), Animal Farm (George Orwell), or To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), just to name a few—you will find yourself even more receptive to ideas than ever.  Your mind is now working in overdrive—you are absorbing new concepts and ideologies, comparing them with your currently held beliefs, and making an active decision about what you will now believe.  Because of this, your mind is primed and ready for accepting and considering ideas, and your creativity is heightened.  Put them together, and it’s a recipe for coming up with a new idea.

Other suggestions

There are entire books out there full of suggestions for generating ideas.  Some include “people watching”—quietly observing people at parks or malls—which isn’t nearly as creepy as it sounds. The idea is that by watching other people, you’ll end up trying to make sense of what they do, which in turn can give you ideas.  Other sources will recommend reading news stories, as these can also give you ideas.  You can go to retirement homes and visit with the residents—they have many life stories to share with you which may inspire you.  You can listen to music.  The possibilities go on and on.

In my experience, however, no two methods for generating ideas have been as reliable or useful as writing prompts and reading thought-provoking books. In other words, if you want to get ideas for writing, the two easiest ways to do this are to a) write, and b) read. 

Writing and reading.  These two things will fuel your creativity like nothing else will.

So, if you’re trying to come up with an idea and feel stuck, grab a pen, your iPod, and a timer, or grab a good book.  I think you’ll be pleased with the results.

Do you have any methods for making yourself more receptive to ideas?  Do you think that writers get ideas, or that “ideas get writers?” Share your thoughts in the comments.

*Stephen R. Donaldson, while a fantastic author, writes books for an adult audience.  They contain bad language and graphic content not appropriate for readers under 18.  I caution all readers under the age of 18 to ask their parents or guardians before they read any of Donaldson’s books.
Works Cited:

Donaldson, Stephen R. The Gap into Conflict: The Real Story. New York: Bantam, 1992.

Klems, Brian A. and Zachary Petit. “52 Writing Prompts.” Writing Basics. Spring 2013: 22-25. Print.

Like my blog? Use the form in the sidebar to subscribe! 

1 comment:

  1. In my case, the ideas sort of come and go in shoals of two or three. I sort of just get them while thinking about the storyline, and then I'm off. When the ideas aren't running, though, it's a struggle to write even one sentence- but then, I suppose the opening sentence is always the hardest, huh? In those times of creativity deficiency, I find that just continuing to go through my day will get them flowing again pretty quickly. I must be one of the lucky ones. If I really want to write RIGHT THEN, and the ideas still aren't coming, random generators (single word, plot twist, etc.) are my usual go-to method. Opening a dictionary to a random page and pointing to a random word is my low-tech variation. So, in my experience, the writer gets the ideas.