The Where and When of Ideas

There’s one question writers are asked more than any other. No, it’s not, “Are you going to eat your dinner or just stare off into space all night?” – though, yeah, that one comes up pretty frequently, too. The most-common question is about ideas. Namely, “Where do your ideas come from?” (Or, as if there were some store the questioner had yet to hear about, “Where do you get your ideas.”)

It’s a good question. A great one, even. But, unfortunately, it is also an impossible one. Tracing an idea all the way back to its root cause would be as hard as tracing a speck of pollen that’s landed on your shirt back to the flower from which it originated. At night. With a blindfold on. While being extremely allergic to pollen. And flowers. And the outdoors in general.

But this isn’t a bad thing. Far from it. The mystery behind the origins of ideas is one of the most fascinating and exciting aspects of the writing process. It’s where any or all (depending on your outlook) of the magic is. Because once an idea bubbles up or pops into your brain (every writer has their own preferred metaphor for the mysterious moment), you get to work, you ply your trade, using the tried-and-true tools and techniques you have developed through countless hours, days, years, or even decades of practice. And all of that is knowable and known. It is an observable – yet still fascinating and exciting – part of the process. There is little, if any, mystery and magic.

So, while I am as in the dark as every other writer who, when asked this question, ums and ahs and stammers and, ultimately, fails to provide a sufficiently direct and detailed answer to the question of where ideas come from, I can address a different, but related – and, I believe, more productive – question. It’s a question I’ve never been asked, and one I can’t recall hearing any other writer ever being asked. It goes like this: “When do you get your ideas?” And about this, I’ve got plenty to say.

I get my ideas – and I’m talking about the good ones here, the ones that have legs on them, that unspool themselves and turn into novels – when my mind and imagination are unfocused, loose, and even lazy. It’s never when I’m actively thinking about something, never when I’m engrossed in a good book, and never – not ever – when I’m trying to find an idea. In such moments, my mind is much too cluttered to have an idea, much less a good one. There’s no room for one to bubble up. And even if one managed to, it’d be popped right away by one of the many thoughts already banging around in there.

All of which is to say, for the sake of your own writing and – to get a little grandiose and preachy – for the sake of a future full of high-quality, original novels, stop looking for ideas and spend more time and energy letting them come to you. Standing in line at the grocery store? Try and empty out your mind. Let your eyes wander and drink up the scene around you without any analysis or judgment. Walking the dog? Don’t whip out your cell phone. Look. Listen. Just be. Find a time and space every day in which you can do absolutely nothing, when you shut off, shut down, and just breathe and blink. Even if you can only find five minutes for such a perfectly passive activity, I promise – you’ll be more likely to find your next great idea in those 300 seconds than you will in the tens of thousands that fill the rest of the day.

2 thoughts on “The Where and When of Ideas

  1. You’re so right! For me, ideas come when I can let my mind wander. I find walking the dog is a great time to find writing ideas or solve writing problems. Other good times are in the shower or at night when I’m on the edge of sleep.

    1. Oh, yes — the shower. I can often be seen darting out of there, rushing for my notebook or computer to get down some sentences or notes. Early-morning dog walks are usually fruitful, too.

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