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The answer to That Question

‘Where do you get your ideas from?’

It’s probably the most common question writers get asked by the public – asked so constantly that many of us roll our eyes and laugh uncomfortably when we hear it. Most of us don’t want to try to answer the question in one snappy paragraph or less, but we give it go, because someone has been nice enough to be interested. Or we react like one novelist I knew-who-will-remain-nameless, sitting next to me in 2007: ‘Out of my arse, where do you think?’

Oh dear.

As a writer, I’m not entirely sure why the public asks this question so very much. Is it because they think there is some kind of magic repository, or some kind of special finite skill that we can communicate, or some kind of secret that we can explain? Or is it just something you ask a writer, when the room has gone quiet at the start of the Q&A? Perhaps it’s the literary equivalent of ‘nice weather we’re having’. Perhaps the audience don’t really care about the answer. But why are we often so uncomfortable, trying to respond?

As Stephen King once said of the question: it’s not the point. I think I agree.

Whisper: I don’t believe ‘ideas’ are the secret to writing.

More on that in a minute.

Readers aren’t the only ones concerned with this question of genesis. Undergraduate writing students often arrive in my class obsessed with the getting and keeping and care of ideas, the quality and originality of their ideas, what ideas are ‘allowed’ or ‘appropriate’ now that they are In University, and in some cases a fear that their ideas will be stolen (‘How does copyright work?’ this kind of student asks anxiously, plucking at my sleeve. I want to say, ‘Nobody is yet interested in your raggedy-ass under-developed ideas my love, be concerned with writing something good first…’ but I always restrain myself).

Some of our students are even arrogant about their ideas, as if they think them viable simply because they occurred to them: relying on the potency of their own feelings, but balking at the skills necessary to express that passion. ‘But it happened to me!’ they say. Yes. But you must write it well, too, we insist. On the other end of the spectrum, many more of our students have to learn to believe in their own ideas, to trust their own wisdom, rather than anxiously write about the things that they have deemed ‘literary’ prior to their arrival. This lack of confidence be exacerbated by limited reading or inexperience with a variety of writing types. We don’t forget that one time our poet-editor, Jeff Hilson, shared some of his experimental work during Fresher Week, prompting the departure of one outraged student, sputtering that ‘wasn’t poetry’. We rather think Jeff’s work made him nervous.

Sometimes our students speak of their ‘real work’, referring to the writing they do outside of the classroom, usually something very close to their hearts, and often including ideas they have deemed unsuitable for the classroom, without ever asking. These are the ideas we usually want to see the most, because they are imbued with authenticity and passion. ‘But I didn’t think that you would want to read about my made up world/ sea monsters/vampire lesbians/life as a working class North Londoner/fan fiction/personal blog/life as a girl/life as a boy,’ they say, when we ask to see their ‘real’ ideas. They regard us with suspicion when we say they should write creatively in their own languages: that they should use the slang, the internet emojis, the patois – the ‘imperfect’ English in which they are fluent – to write poems or make stories or screenplays, that their ‘real lives’ are fertile opportunities and they needn’t jump out of helicopters before they share. That we are far less concerned about what they write and more concerned about how they do it.

But they learn.

So if it’s not the idea you need to be asking writers about, what is it? What is the question, if you’d really like to understand writerly process? If you’d really like to plumb our souls? Or you feel like one of us and want to join the club?

There are so many questions. But this is one: ask us about form.

About the shape of the thing.

Writers are a tad concerned with form and structure. A tad obsessed. What if you didn’t ask the writer WHERE he/she got his ideas from, but how and why they chose the FORM? Is it a haiku or a sonnet, or is it the deliciously odd rhythmic opportunity of a prose poem? Is it forty thousand, eighty thousand, one thousand, one hundred words long, and how did that help express an idea? Are they shooting 15 seconds of footage or did they decide on commercial length film? When they decided to set down their memories, how did they choose between a book, an article on Buzzfeed or a series of well-edited tweets? What silhouette did they first imagine? How did the vessel come into being? And how are they working within or playing with the limits and requirements of these structures?

Why does it feel so important for us to discuss form with student writers? More work has been done around the idea of restriction and the way that limits encourage creativity than I can fit/discuss in this space, but in very basic terms it’s like when a young kid ignores the toy in the box and goes off to make the box into a plane and then a bird and then an x-ray machine and then a birthing chamber for aliens in the space of 15 minutes – please tell me that kids still do this. When faced with limits, the brain actually spews ideas to cope. I see this happen in practice every year: when a young writer suddenly realises that the trick to this writing lark is not to come up with a stupendously original idea That No-One Has Heard Of Before (good luck with that one) but to actually learn what specific forms of writing require.

If you know that a traditional story usually ends in some kind of change or consequence as a result of the events in that story, then you also know if you’re writing in that form, that the kid with his Christmas box has got to end up not quite the same as he was before, whether he gets a lesson about the nature of selfishness when he’s mean to his brother about the pressies, or something he refuses to learn about love, around the corner of the garden shed while pretending to morph between worlds in his cardboard time machine.

If it’s haiku you’re writing, you come to understand that you’re looking for a moment of juxtaposition, that you’re finding words to express concrete ideas and behaviours rather than abstract notions (hence, the cat is not ‘neglected’, we must actually see its stiff body, mouth upwards to the rain).

You learn about the objective art of rhetoric, more specifically about the structural choices that bad and good men have made in speeches to lead us down certain garden paths – not by magic, but by repetition and specific diction and verb choice.

You learn how in some experimental poetic and prose forms, that the manipulation of rhythm and sound of language is way more important than it all ‘making sense’, because life isn’t so clean and simple and wrapped up tight, and that art has the opportunity to express that truth. That flash fiction relies on looking at a moment in all its glory for, as the French say, as long as it takes to smoke a cigarette and no more. That whether you’re facing the challenge of flash or the challenge of keeping an audience with you for 100,00 words, that ideas – as any writer who’s ever been foolish enough to tell a non-writer that they are indeed a writer while sitting next to them on an eight hour flight knows – are ten-a-penny, and it’s not the idea, it’s what you do with it, what you actually fashion it into that counts.

Hell, whisper it: the form might give birth to the idea.

A longer version of this blog was originally published in PURPLE LIGHTS published by Fincham Press, 2016

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