"Where do you get your ideas?"
This question has been asked of every writer at some time. It is asked hopefully, by people wanting to go to the same source and drink from it, a source which has so far frustratingly eluded them; it has been asked with genuine curiosity by people who don't necessarily want to know because THEY want to go there and get ideas but because they honestly cannot conceive of how a story gets spun; it has been asked aggressively, or in the aggrieved tone of someone ill done by, because the writer being questioned has obviously gone and somehow purloined the ideas that rightfullty belong to the person doing the questioning. And none of those questions have an answer that the questioner wants to hear. Because the simple answer, for most writers, is that they are hip deep in ideas and they have a harder time fighting the rest of the pests off while they're grappling with any single ONE at a time. But writing -while being dismissed in one breath as something that anyone can really do, as in, "Oh, I'll sit down and write a book when I retire/when the kids are in school/when I have more time", as though time and opportunity are all that's lacking - manages to retain an aura of the semi-mystical anyway, because that is what story telling has always been - mystery and a gift from the gods.
So where do you get your ideas?
Where do I get mine?
I like to tell people that I go out into my back yard where my idea tree grows, and just pick the fruit that looks ripe. I've had a range of reactions to that, from a sudden widening of the eyes and a slow nod, to a self-conscious giggle, to an impatient toss of the head implying that I should pull their other leg, to downright hostility couched in terms of, oh, well, okay, be like that then, DON'T tell me, as though I am purposely concealing a deep dark secret from them. The truth is... ideas are everywyere.
I have smelled stories in the early mornings after a rainy night when the sun is just rising and the air smells freshly washed and clean, in the smell of a fir forest, in the warm and comforting scent of a pot of bubbling stew on the stove on a cold evening, in a bunch of lilacs, in the acrid scent of wet dog, in the throat-constricting stench of fresh tar, in fresh deer scat out in my garden.
I have touched stories in the rough bark of old trees, in smooth pebbles worn small and round in running water, in the different softness of moss and of velvet, in a sharp knife edge, in the slippery half-melting shape of something that used to be an ice-cube.
I have tasted storise in hot coffee, in reindeer stew, in chicken soup, in quince jelly, in an accidental bite of a jalapeno pepper, in chocolate, in warm ENglish beer.
I have heard stories in the voices of storms, in the music of a harp, in an old woman's voice, in a clash of swords in a battle or the drone of approaching planes bearing bombs, in the babble of a mountain stream or the crash of ocean breakers on a seashore, in chruch bells, in laughter, in song, in cries of pain, in ghost voices of vanished ancestors, in the sound of the rain on a roof while snug in bed at night, in the way that old-fashioned trains tripped over gaps in the sleepers on the rail tracks lulling me to sleep (tadumtaDUMtadumtaDUMtadumtaDUM all the way into the night).
I have seen stories in the flight of an eagle, in the silhouette of an elephant in an African twilight, in a coy smile hidden behind an oriental fan, in the glitter of sunlight on snow or water, in a mountainside of aspen trees turned gold by fall, in the lines of the face of a human being who has lived for a long time, in porcelain and metal and glass, inside museums and outside on city pavements watching the people bustle by.
I have reached out and buried my hands into life, up to the elbows, and when I have drawn them out again stories cling to my forearms, nestle in my cupped palms, run down my fingers and pool into puddles at my feet.
To write, you must live, you must dream, you must be a part of that which surrounds you. You must observe closely, and you must look at the big picture - the telescope through which you can see stars and the electron microscope which shows you a single virus are equally essential tools. You must be curious. You're allowed to be afraid, but you must learn to rise above that and stretch to the things that you fear in order that you might learn to understand them.
It gets to be a convoluted argument, really - I live to write, I write to live, which comes first, the chicken or the egg... but this is the kind of thing where the laws of physics break down and things become Schrodinger's chickeggs where they are both at the same time and cannot be called one or another without opening the black box and clearly defining a set of circumstances and a context through which such things are being judged.
Where do I get my ideas...?
My front door opens into a street, my back door into the woods - how miraculous is THAT, even without any embellishment whatsoever? But if you don't want it to be that simple, well, there's a closet in my house which opens out into the glorious gleam of the Milky Way. There's a cupboard under the stairs which contains the treasure of lost civilizations. There's a bookshelf which contains only books never written. And yes, there's that ideas tree in the back garden - where a couple of fruits are starting to look just right - rosy red and bittersweet, with rich juices that run down your chin.
I think I might go out and see what story has ripened today.