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No, really, where do you get your ideas?

by Robbi Hess

I know they’re out there… somewhere. I walk five miles a day hoping one of them will hop up onto my shoulder and shriek “pick me, pick me.”

It rarely happens.

Some days I just lie on my bed in the early hours of the morning, hoping that if I am really still one of them will shimmy up my arm and whisper in my ear, “here I am.”

No such luck.

Ideas. When you are searching for them they are as elusive as gossamer strands of silk. Once you get them down on paper and weave them into the fabric of your story they are everlasting. Ideas feed upon themselves and flourish.

So many times I sense them skulking in the shadows, just out of reach. They dart in and out of my subconscious, taunting me. Know this, my fellow writers, once you have an idea, even if it is only a glimmer of one, you must write it down.

Don’t rely on your memory to hold onto ideas. Their fleeting beauty will elude you and evaporate unless it is grasped firmly and committed to paper. A writer who fails to pick up a pen and write it down has let many a great idea filter through the tiny cracks in their memory because they were convinced it was something they would never forget. Don’t let this happen to you.

Napkins, business cards, the tops of pizza boxes or even the palm of your hand are suitable receptacles for the precious newly born idea. I keep a tiny notebook and an even tinier pen with me at all times. In my car I have a micro-cassette recorder stuffed into the glove box – just in case my ideas are flowing too fast, or if there is no safe place to pull over and scribble the ideas down. I click on the recorder and chatter away. I have found that ideas oftentimes spring from other ideas.

It amazes me that in my journalism career I am never at a loss for ideas. I finish one story and the next is simmering away in the corner of my mind. My nonfiction ideas spawn from one another effortlessly.

My fiction ideas seem harder to come by. They require effort. Sometimes they require tears, pencils worn to nubs and long, long, solitary walks. But once I find one I nurture it until it blossoms into a piece of prose.

Don’t give up hope of discovering ideas. They are out there. Ideas are waiting for the intrepid writer to snatch them up, mine them and turn them from a lump of coal into a shimmering hunk of gold.

Newspapers and magazines can spark an idea. Take a piece of an article that intrigues you – perhaps the lead: “Four children found locked in trunk of car,” “From the ruins of the Trade Towers comes love,” “After three long years, Tippy was reunited with his beloved owner.” These leads could spawn a romance story, a horror piece, a mystery and so many others.

Take snippets of articles and play the “what if” game. Pick up your pencil or sit and the keyboard and free-write. Remember, free-writing means letting yourself go – don’t censor your thoughts or ideas, don’t edit yourself and for heaven’s sake don’t worry about the sometimes macabre or downright silly path your thoughts may take. For example: what if…the children’s babysitter put them in the trunk; what if… they hopped into the trunk to escape the vampire that came from the haunted house at the end of the street; what if…the kids had heard someone calling to them from inside the car and crawled in to help out and had gotten locked in, etc., etc.

Let your imagination wander. Don’t reject any idea no matter how scary, uncomfortable, silly or inane it seems. The time for editing and censorship will come soon enough – for now, enjoy the process and let those ideas flow.

Other idea wells include: eavesdropping on a conversation while you are in a coffee shop or the grocery store; pulling out the dictionary and randomly choosing three or four words and working them into a short piece; choose a line from a book and run with it. What if you were the writer who penned “It was a dark and stormy night.”? Where would that line lead you? Would it be a horror story, a tragic gothic tale or perhaps the scene of an unsolved murder mystery?

There are myriad books on the market specifically written to jumpstart your creativity. They are filled with pictures, word prompts, snippets of poetry and “what if” story starters.

For now…let’s end this month’s column with this idea (a personal favorite of mine). Take a sheet of paper and across the top write the five senses: smell, taste, touch, sound and sight. Imagine you are walking into an old, deserted house. Write at least three words that come to mind for each of the senses. After you have done that, now put yourself in the shoes of either a: six-year old boy who is entering the house on a dare; an elderly couple who are forced to sell their beloved homestead; or a young, starry-eyed married couple looking to purchase their first home.

Ok, now go. Sit at the keyboard, pick up that pencil and paper and begin free-writing and see where your imagination takes you.

© 2002 by Robbi Hess

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