Where do you get your ideas? I’m asked this question a lot at events, and I never quite know what to say because the very truthful, very unhelpful answer is: everywhere.
From movies, TV shows, books, video games, walks in the woods, travels across the ocean, adventures in foreign cities, the quality of rain on the streets, conversations that last into the night, art, music, feelings. In my experience, inspiration can and does come from anywhere, from anything that strikes me, moves me, sways me from wherever I was before to who I could be.
But ideas are a dime a dozen. They wink and sparkle and distract. They pile up in drawers and hard drives: ten pages, fifty, unfinished outlines, half-plotted quests, characters without stories to inhabit. Getting an idea is easy.
Settling on the idea that I need to pursue, the one that haunts me, the one that I’ll keep chipping away at, even when the work is hard, even when it feels like I’m going nowhere, even when I know it would be easier to give up, that’s the real trick.
Personally, I can’t figure that out without time and a little magic. You know, that magic that happens when all your inspirations and ideas get inside of you, when all the disparate sounds, textures, and flavors of your experience get shaken up in the great tumbler of your chest, fusing and combining in all sorts of unexpected ways. That’s one of the beautiful things about art, I think. That wholly individual synthesis.
For me, that synthesis takes time. I’ve learned that my ideas have to percolate for years before I can even begin work on them. They’re there--I can feel them bubbling quietly in the back of my mind--but I don’t look directly at them. Maybe I’ll daydream about them as I drift off to sleep or scribble down a character name or a piece of the world-building here and there. I’ll add these things to the simmer. Continue not to look. Wait. See what sticks.
The Reader Trilogy, for example, came out of a long and unlikely confluence of Things That Wouldn’t Let Me Go:
It was years of experiences. Years of ideas. An outlaw with an honor code. A magic book. A fantasy heroine that looked like me. An ending that would rip your heart out. I jotted down the first sentences of what would become The Reader in 2008. I didn’t finish the first draft until 2014, ten years after the story’s first character came to me (it was Captain Reed, if you're wondering!).
I had a lot of fears while I was working on The Reader. Would I get an agent? Would it sell? Would anyone understand it? Would it find a place out there, in readers’ hearts? But the one thing I never feared was that someone would write it before I could.
Because putting together these inspirations in this way? That could only be done by me, and it just took time before I figured out how to combine them, how to synthesize them with my wholly individual magic. See, I think ideas get shaken up inside you, and when they emerge again, at your fingertips, they’re something totally new, something only you could have made.
Is this process slow? Oh yeah. At any given time, I only have two or three books inside me: the one I’m actively working on; the one that’s slowly taking shape, like some creature out of the primordial ooze; and a flicker of an idea that’s little more than a premise (or sometimes not even that).
But for me, these slow-cooker ideas are the only ones worth pursuing. Actually, I think they’re the only ideas I can pursue, the only ones that I can sustain over the year or three or ten that it will take to bring them into the world. It’s the ideas haunt me, before I’ve even started working on them, that are the ones I know I can make into books.
My current project, for example, has been floating inside me, like wisps of cloud, for years. I remember capturing the first piece of it when I was twelve years old, even though I didn’t start serious research on it until 2015, and the story didn’t coalesce until 2018, when I finally figured out how to write it in the way only I could.
Of course, it probably doesn’t work this way for everyone. Other people have six novel ideas cooking at once. Other people can write two or three or five books in a year. In the past, I’ve wondered what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I produce like that? What if I only had one story in me to tell? Why am I so slow? But the more I come to understand my process, the gentler I am with myself. Because this is my process--this is how the work gets done, how the art gets made--at least for now, and I’m learning to embrace it. If you’re like me, and you’re reading this, I hope it gives you a little more patience with yourself and your muse. I hope you believe in the magic inside of you, the experience and perspective that only you can fuse into something wholly and beautifully new. I hope you write the stories that won’t let you go, and make the things that only you can make.
Next week: REFILLING THE WELL. I just turned in a project, and I’m in desperate need of a brain break! What do you do to recover your creative energy? Do you have any restorative practices that keep you from burnout? Where do you go to feed your muse? What rejuvenates you as an artist? How do you refuel yourself between projects? Come sit with me next Sunday at tracichee.com and/or post your own responses with the hashtag #workandprocess. As my friend Steve Stormoen, author of The Pros comics says, love and solidarity. <3
Work and Process is a year-long journey of exploring and reflecting on the artistic process, craft, and working in a creative field. Each Sunday, I’ll post some thoughts, wonderings, explanations, and explorations on writing and creativity, and by the end of it, I hope to have 52 musings/examinations/meanderings/discoveries/bits of joy or inquisitiveness or knowledge to share. In each post, I’ll also include a topic for the following week, so if you happen to be inspired to question/wonder at/consider your own work and process, you’re welcome to join me. We’ll be using the #workandprocess hashtag across all social media platforms, and I hope we find each other to learn and connect and transform on our creative wanderings.