This may be every writer’s favorite, and least favorite question. Coming from children, it always makes me excited, because I see it as an opportunity to engage them in the writing process, to show them that their own ideas are valid and valuable. Coming from adults, it makes me wonder why their brains aren’t overspilling with the same overwhelming number of stories that flood my waking and sleeping moments.
I used to teach writing classes for the University of Utah’s Life Long Learning program, an assortment of non-credit courses through the Continuing Education office. Shortly before I started doing this, I had read an article in Writer’s Digest by a woman who was a prolific romance novelist. She talked about speaking at conferences and being asked this question over and over. Her standard response was “all around me.” Then one day, she looked out over the audience and her tongue got the better of her.
“Where do you get your ideas?” asked an elderly woman on the third row.
“From living and breathing,” the writer answered.
What was even funnier was that the same woman approached the writer after her speech and said, “I have a few ideas, too, and one day I hope to have the time to write a few of them down.”
The writer stared at her, dumb-founded. This silver-haired participant, well past retirement, couldn’t find time to write? The writer blurted her response. “Honey,” she said, “I have four kids, a part-time job, a husband, and a house to take care of. If you can’t find the time, it’s because you don’t want to find the time.”
I love that. I think of it regularly when I have adults who ask “Where do you get your ideas?”
In my kinder moments, I realize what this question really is: fear. Often, those who ask this question are really saying something like, “I’ve never been told I could write, and I’m afraid my ideas won’t be good enough.” It is important for me to realize at times like this that not everyone had Mrs. Saenz for a third grade teacher. Not everyone was told from the time he or she was eight that he or she should be a writer. I was. I was lucky.
(This is going to look like I’ve taken a giant off-ramp, but it relates, I promise.) When I was in the fifth grade, I had a teacher named Mr. Sharp. He was an evil man who should not have been allowed around young minds. He was a form Army drill sergeant and he made us do push-ups and squats first thing in the morning. And he is the reason I will not do art.
We were studying the concept of shadow, and I was utterly confused. I couldn’t figure out how the angles worked. Like, if the sun is at a 45 degree angle, and a tree is at a 90 degree angle, where does the shadow fall? And I kept confusing shadow with reflection. A part of the wiring in my brain could not grasp this concept – it’s a math thing I guess, like why I sometimes add when I’m supposed to subtract.
So we were drawing pictures that demonstrated shadow and I kept getting them wrong. At the end of the class, I turned in a picture that I knew wasn’t right, but I didn’t know how to fix it. I hadn’t but barely set the picture on the desk when Mr. Sharp wrote an enormous F at the top and handed it back. I was crushed. I had worked for days on that picture, struggling to make it realistic, to grasp the concepts.
The following day I stayed in from morning recess and tried again. After several efforts gone terribly wrong, I came up with what I thought was an easy and reasonable solution. I drew the sun directly overhead at 90 degrees. Then I drew a turtle, and beneath the turtle, a proportionally sized shadow. It was a good turtle, and I believed it solved my dilemma.
After recess, Mr. Sharp began holding up the pictures that our class had done and offering his own art critique. He was cruel, and rude, except for two instances: Barbara Burton and Steve Fairbanks (the two straight A students in our class). Then he got to my turtle. I sat up a little straighter, quite proud of my compromise.
Mr. Sharp tore the picture into small pieces and threw them in the trash.
I failed 7th grade Art class because I refused to do any of the assignments. I never took another art class after that.
I’d love to be able to draw and paint, especially water colors. But truthfully, the mere thought of attempting it causes me anxiety, and I justify my fear by saying that I simply don’t have time to take up one more thing. I barely have time for the things I enjoy as it is. I console myself with knitting and crocheting – I do those beautifully if I do say so myself. But part of me harbors a deep resentment toward this man, now long dead buried, for having taken something from me.
Now, when I’m tempted to offer some smart-ass answer to the question that launched this whole topic, I remind myself that I don’t ever want to do to another person what Mr. Sharp did to me (and a lot of other kids, no doubt). So I measure my words, and what I typically say is “I get my ideas from the same place you get yours. I watch, I listen, and I try to imagine those things around me being woven into a story. Sometimes I tuck the idea away in my subconscious to let it mature. Sometimes I write it down in its raw state and try to find its natural qualities. And sometimes, I start polishing right away and working it into something I think is going to shine. But I try not to throw out anything or judge it as ‘bad’ or ‘not useful’ because I’m afraid I may toss aside something really clever that’s hidden beneath a shadow.”
So – where do you get your ideas?