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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Where Ideas Come From

            Sometimes I am afraid of the color white. The blank page staring back at me, waiting for me to put words on it, words that are so brilliant and moving the page will be famous forever. It wants that, because I want it and I’m projecting my feelings onto the pixilated image of a white piece of paper. I almost never write with a pen and physical paper, largely because I once wrote my grandpa a letter and his response was, “It is always so nice to hear from you. Please in the future don’t write unless you have a computer or typewriter, as your handwriting requires inspiration from God to interpret.” I’m paraphrasing that, but only a little.
            And I go off on tangents and fiddle with my email because the page in front of me is still crying out for an idea. What do I write about? I want to write, I want to write for hours every day because nothing makes me feel more like me than writing. This is who I am independent of anyone else; I am a writer. A writer who has nothing to write about. So where do the ideas come from?
            There is in the creative arts a pervasive myth called “the muse.” Based in Greek mythology, the muses were goddesses, inspirations of literature, science, and the arts. They were considered the source of knowledge and were the nine daughters of the god king Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory personified). And they would bestow upon a mortal the perfect idea, fully formed, by placing it in his mind. Then he would write it, sculpt it, paint it, dance it, or whatever that artist’s creative medium was. Therefore the creation of genius was at the whim of the gods, and me sitting at my computer staring would sit and stare until one such muse took pity on me and planted an idea in my brain, or until I got too hungry and went to find something to eat.
            That’s a terrible thing to build a career on. If you believe that, you’re just waiting around for inspiration to strike, I fear I must disappoint you. It won’t work. But fortunately, I can tell you what will.
            It is nearly impossible to be truly original, and too many writers worry about it. You don’t need to be original, you need to be informed. If you want to write then the first thing you MUST do is stop staring at the blank page. Go read something. Read your favorite book, the one that inspires you the most. Or watch your favorite TV show, the one that gets your blood pumping. Then think about why. Think about your favorite character in those stories and ask yourself why you like them. What is it about them that draws you in? Why do they matter?
            Then take that character, yes, that character, give them a different name, and put them somewhere else. One of my favorite personal daydreams was about JRR Tolkien’s book “The Return of the King.” All I wanted was to take Sam and Frodo, after the battle of Shelob, and bring them out of the story and into my house. I wanted to feed them, give them fresh clothes and let them sleep for weeks beyond the touch of Mordor and where the one ring had no power so that when they had to go back and finish their quest, Frodo could remember what strawberries taste like.
            So what would I have done if there were actually Hobbits in My House? Would I have tried to hide them from my parents, or explain them away? How on earth could I have found enough food to feed two starved hobbits? And how would I get them back into their story so they could save their world? Suddenly I have an outline to finish, some discovery writing to do, and a story to fill those blank pages.
            The thing I love most about the mythos of the muses is their mother. Mnemosyne was memory personified, the sum of all experiences and gained knowledge and therefore the wellspring of everything you think and even the way you form your thoughts. Inspiration doesn’t come externally, lightning bolts or paperclips from the universe. It comes from inside you, bits of stories you’ve read or life you’ve experienced, people you know and goals you have all jumbled together and bursting out in different ways. And the more you have inside you the more combinations they can make, the more stories that can spring out of your muse inside.
            For example, take your favorite hobby. We’ve used me already so I’ll use my dad this time. My dad loves electric guitars, and is an incredible guitar player. I tease him that it’s his superpower, and this dad thing is his mild mannered alter ego. My father is soft spoken and kind, funny and understanding. But place an electric guitar in his hand and he blisters with fire. Seriously. You can check him out on YouTube. So my main character is a man who has worked his whole life in jobs he didn’t like for a variety of bosses, some okay, some awful, but who can play the electric guitar like Slash and Jimi Hendrix. I can go several directions from there- the conflict is the man versus his life when suddenly he gets the opportunity to perform on stage with a famous rock group and has to choose between the life he’s always known and the life he’s always wanted. Or he can burn with so much passion for music that his music becomes magic and changes the world around him. Or he can be given a magical instrument. Or he can die while playing and his music haunts musicians forever. Dark or light, fantasy or fiction, my story can go anywhere.
            We wait for brilliance when what we really must do is begin. Many writers have a scene in their mind, just one snippet of an idea that they can’t get out of their head. Write it down. Look at it. Who are these people? What’s the conflict? Where in the story is this scene? And think about things you know that make you unique. I have narcolepsy, so my next series features a main character who also has narcolepsy. Do you paint? Can you shoot a bow and arrow? Do you know a lot about Greek mythology? Gardening? Do you or someone you love have a terrible illness?
Writing can be cathartic. If you need to write because you need to deal with something, then write about that something. Don’t try to write about golden puppies that endlessly play in emerald grass if what’s inside you is eating you alive. Black unicorns are okay. People can die in stories. Writing isn’t about making everyone happy or fooling people into believing that life is grand and the good guys always win. Writing is about facing life, and life isn’t fair. Life is full of conflicts and distresses and the good guys don’t win every battle. We write to be okay with that. We read to be okay with that. Don't go into this with any preconceived limitations on what your writing should be. Save those for post. You can clean it up in editing. For now, just write. 
And if all else fails, you can always do the three word exercise. Remember that one? It was in my post about writer's block and how to fix it. If you don't remember it, then here it is again. Pick three random words from the dictionary and write a story blurb about them. Here, I’ll give you an example:

My three words: crucible (a severe, searching test or trial), octopus, space lab. Okay, so the last is two words, but it came up. Let’s see. So we have a location, a space lab. We have an object, an octopus. And we have an event, a crucible. We can take these literally, Captain Owen Boxley of NASA is called to transport a beautiful Marine Biologist, Breen Rowland, to the international space station where she will conduct tests on the effect of zero gravity on an octopus. Hilarity ensues when the octopus escapes its enclosure and travels around in a bubble of water, but danger strikes when the water causes a malfunction of key systems in the space lab. Will they survive the crucible of imminent death in space and return to earth?
Or we could take it figuratively. The octopus is the unofficial animal of the steampunk subculture (which I learned just now by typing “octopus associations” into google) so we could make our story a steampunk novel. Dr. Horatio Jason Fidelius believes that with imagination and machinery man can accomplish anything. He’s spent his entire family’s fortune trying to prove it. But now that his wife is ill and his children are nearly destitute, he has one last chance to redeem himself and care for them. Sir Ryan Gunwitch-Black has offered a sum of 2 million pounds to any man who can create a flying machine.  But not just any flying machine; a machine that can fly to outer space.
Two completely different story ideas from the same three words. So now for the challenge. Ready? I want you to come up with a story idea based on these three random words: peripatetic, innervate, and singer. Or get your own random three words by going to a Creative Random Word Generator. Either way, no matter what methods you choose to get your idea or whether you get a combination flash from your subconscious, write. The best way to become a better writer is practice. Every day. 

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