“One resists the invasion of armies; one does not resist the invasion of ideas.” – Victor Hugo
One of the million dollar questions writers always get asked is, “Where do you get your ideas?” The imagination is such a diverse and chaotic thing, it seems sometimes like ideas are random. In a way, I answered this question for myself in my blog post about ragpicking. Ideas come from everywhere because writers are observers and pick up on the kind of subtle details that many people do not pick up on.
Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love, among other books, has a different take on this question. In her book on creativity, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, she takes the perspective that the imagination is something belonging to the cosmos. Indeed, she confesses, “[C]reativity is a force of enchantment—not entirely human in its origins” (Gilbert, p. 34). Because of this, Gilbert takes a Law of Attraction approach to the origin of ideas. To her, ideas are “a disembodied, energetic life-form… completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us— albeit strangely” (Gilbert, p. 34-35). In other words, ideas find the writer rather than the writer finds them: “[I]deas spend eternity swirling around us, searching for available and willing human partners” (Gilbert, p. 35).
While I appreciate this perspective, I cannot agree with it. For me, ideas are not stagnate things floating around waiting to latch on to a writer’s consciousness. Writers get their ideas interacting with the world around them and finding the significance of those interactions. Ideas do not become stories randomly – they must touch a writer consciously and unconsciously, speaking to the writer’s experience and psychological reality. This is what makes an idea personally relevant and ripe to turn into a story for the writer.
I recently wrote a blog post about looking at art for the second time and finding new meaning in it. I mentioned there Nin’s story “Je Suis le Plus Malade Des Surrealists”. Nin was inspired to write it when she reread observations she made in her diary observing a psychiatrist do an intake of a schizophrenic man. She understood the schizophrenic man’s strange ideas and associations in a way the doctor questioning him did not and this was reflected in the story. But the story itself was not about the schizophrenic man but about her friend, actor and poet Antonin Artaud. In her diary, Nin writes of Artaud:
“Such an immense pity I have for Artaud, because he is always suffering. It is the darkness, the bitterness in Artuad I want to heal. Physically I [can]not touch him, but the flame and genius in him I love.” (Nin, p. 222)
She wanted to write about the kind of psychiatric intake she had witnessed but the pity she felt for the schizophrenic man who was so misinterpreted connected to her troubled friend. This became the idea for the story.
I mention here an incident of observing an elderly couple interacting in the line at Starbuck’s one Sunday. The couple struck me because they reminded me of my grandparents’ relationship. The woman was dominant and selfish, attending to her texting while she allowed her husband, a man who walked with a cane, take care of the large tray of drinks. The dominant-passive relationship struck a cord in me and the couple makes an appearance in one of my works-in-progress, The Claustrophobic Heart (Waxwood Series: Book 2).
I do agree with Gilbert that ideas need writers to make something out of them, that “[i]t is only through a human’s efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the realm of the actual” (Gilbert, p. 35). But I don’t think it’s a random effort. Ideas attach importance to writers through their own associations.
Gilbert, Elizabeth. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Riverhead Books: New York, NY. 2015. Kindle digital file.
Stuhlmann, Gunther, ed. The Diary of Anais Nin, Volume One: 1931-1934. Harcourt, Inc.: Orlando, FL. 1966.