My least favourite question these days is, ‘Where do you get your ideas?‘ Sadly, it’s also one of the most common. It pops up in interviews and conversation; it’s posed by any number of people, however briefly and randomly met. For many, it seems to be the obvious question to ask a writer.
I’m afraid that whatever makes it obvious to them is lost on me. Every time I’m asked I wonder if they envisage a place where ideas exist in their multitudes to be examined and acquired, much as one might cast a judicious eye before surreptitiously squeezing the tomatoes in a supermarket. Perhaps they imagine a quasi-mystical space where writers in search of ideas stumble over the germ of their next opus. Either way the question presumes that ideas are things one goes out and gets; as though they exist independently of the person who has them.
That is rarely how it happens, and the pained expression on the face of every writer who has to come up with a polite answer should be a clue that there is something fundamentally wrong with the question. It would be far more sensible to ask (though not necessarily easier to answer), ‘How do you get your ideas?‘
Ideas arise not from place, but from process.* In my experience this process mostly takes place without any conscious intervention on the part of the writer, and the results are often as much of a surprise to her as to everyone else. Somehow, in some way which I am unable to adequately explain, different bits of stimulus and influence, knowledge and opinion, affinity and experience, combine to produce the magical thing (and I think it is very close to magic) that we call inspiration. It is a deeply mysterious alchemy, and I do not understand how it works.
I’ve never met anyone who does. I suspect that even if you are able to trace your epic tale of star-crossed romance between the children of rival hunter-gatherer tribes back to an article you read six months ago on neolithic basket-weaving, you’ll struggle to put your finger on precisely what it was about that particular piece of paleoanthropology, that on a particular day sent your imagination soaring.
So when you ask a writer the dreaded question and we lamely answer, ‘I don’t know,’ we are not being evasive or disingenuous. We are telling you the literal truth. And that strangely commodified perspective embodied in the construction of ‘where do you get’ is not only incorrect, it’s jarring – as though we had been asked to quantify a rainbow, or draw a map of love.
If ideas come from anywhere, that place is a state of mind. And you don’t go looking for them. They come looking for you.
* It’s true that some writers have techniques for triggering this process, which may include spending time in a particular place: a country walk, a cottage by the sea, the stacks in the library or the shed in the garden. But the trigger is at least as likely to be an activity as a location: doing the ironing, walking the dog, doodling, gardening.