The idea of ideas
Certain questions come up again and again at writing panels, on writing forums, and in writing discussion groups. A lot of those questions are about “ideas.” Where does a writer get ideas? How do you know an idea is worth writing? How do you translate your idea into a story? And so on.
I put the word “ideas” in quotes in that first mention because I believe the people who ask these questions have a profound misunderstanding of the meaning of the word. All words have different meanings depending on the context, of course, but I’m talking about something more than that. Because not only do the people who ask these questions misunderstand the word idea, they misunderstand the entire notion of story.
A story is not a collection of unique notions and eccentric characters presented in a series of shocking situations leading to a surprising ending. Some things we call stories contain all of those things, and in very rare occasions some good stories contain those elements, but that isn’t what a story is. If you want to turn to the dictionary, you might think of a story as a narrative designed to entertain the reader or listener—but that’s at best a mechanical definition of certain types of prose.
A story is a means to transfer a dream from the imagination of the storyteller to the imagination of the reader. Another way of putting it, a story is an incantation for evoking an experience in the mind of the listener.
Specific situations, characters, confrontations, and so forth are part of the arsenal of the storyteller, but they are building materials, not tools. And they are basic building materials, at that. Think of them as nails. Does a carpenter spend a lot of time agonizing over whether a specific nail is worthwhile for this project? No, unless a specific nail is obviously damaged in some manner. Does a carpenter spend a lot of time worrying about where he will find his next nail? No, nails are the kind of supplies a construction company buys in bulk. Does a carpenter spend a lot of time worrying about how to translate his bag of nails into a finished building? No, because nailing boards together is just one tiny part of the entire process of building something, and how to do that is a fundamental skill one should master long, long before attempting to build a house.
The sorts of things that people usually mean when they ask, “Where do you get your ideas” really are as fundamental and individually unimportant as a nail. Yes, if you’re building a house you will need good nails, and they’ll need to be used properly, but no single nail being slightly imperfect, or slightly out of place should ruin the entire structure.
The true skill of storytelling is the process of assembling all of those things together. And as you learn to do that, you start to realize that the parts you were focused on so intently when you were learning the craft are not the most important part of the story. It’s not where your nails came from, or how perfect each nail is.
It’s how you use them.
Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.