Where Do Ideas Come From?

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This week I’m trying my best to avoid answering that old chestnut of “where do I get my ideas?”. Artists of all kinds are asked this but especially writers. Neil Gaiman calls it the Question That Shall Not Be Asked (like Voldemort, or Hamlet…). And yet, asked it gets.  I’m not sure whether people ask this because they think this is the sort of question you are meant to ask a writer, or if they are genuinely looking for an answer. Either way, you’re going to be left feeling unsatisfied, because there’s not a satisfactory answer…because no-one (not even writers) knows. No one can tell you where their ideas come from; not really. Not in a nice, easily digestible prescriptive formula (you don’t just offer up your first-born, or sign up to a mailing list to be sent “new idea alerts” weekly). What I can do, though, is discuss some of the places I sometimes get inspiration (again, sorry – it’s a shifting shoreline, where “sometimes” doesn’t equal “always”, but I’ll do my best).

Write What You Know

As I mentioned in my last blog, I write to make sense of the things happening around me. My first serious poem was Creeping Dose, written about my then-boyfriend’s (now-husband’s) cancer diagnosis and us living through that. It was cathartic. I then wrote a spate of poems as gifts for friends, and subsequently have written poems about my relationship with my mum, my father’s death, about moving into my new house, about my anxiety, even about a fight with my husband…  The people and circumstances in my life have inspired me, if only to attempt to better understand them, how they make me feel, or how I feel about them.

I remember worrying that nothing I wrote meant anything serious. I was constantly being floored by political poetry, and I knew I hadn’t experienced enough of these themes to be able to write about them convincingly. Whenever I tried, it felt forced, jagged. I felt naive and inexperienced. How could I write a poem about something I had never experienced? Well…the answer is, I can’t. BUT I can write about emotion. I know people. I know love, loss, fear, anger, jealousy…and those things are true. Write from a place of emotional truth and readers / listeners will feel it and feel you. So, maybe I haven’t ever directly been affected by or suffered at  the hands of racism, for example, but I know how reading and hearing about it makes me feel, and that I could write truthfully, without pretending to be someone I’m not.

If You Want To Write, You Need To Read (And Listen)

This starts to bleed into the “process” of writing (or at least, how I go about writing), but reading is a huge part of where I get my inspiration and ideas from. Notwithstanding the practical benefits of reading to hone language, grammar and writing skills, reading lots of different things fills up my mental basket, or my ammo-supply, if you like. I try not to be discriminate in my learning. You can never learn to much, and anything you learn could spark a seed of an idea. Next week, or next month, or next year, you might read (or hear) something else that somehow, in your mind, connects to that first island of thought. Then an idea starts to form.

Who Influenced and Inspired Me?

This will probably be a whole blog on its own but here’s a condensed summary. The first poetry book I ever read that made me think “I could do that (maybe)” was “The Diary of Danny Chaucer (Poet),” Roger Stevens writes very rhythmically and lyrically and that definitely struck a chord with me and shaped my joy at rhythm and rhyme.

My Dad had always been a fan of Roger Mcgough, Stevie Smith,and Philip Larkin and so their blunt style wove their way into my cooking pot. Big emotions told without the bullshit.

At secondary school, during GCSE English Literature & Language, we each got given an anthology of poems to study. I wasn’t particularly enamored because nothing strips the joy out of something more than being forced to digest it and be told what it means. BUT I do recall Carol Ann Duffy’s “Valentine” – the imagery has always stayed with me.

I discovered I like Dylan Thomas and Sylvia PlathRupert Brooke, Anne Sexton, Robert Frost. Poems that made me feel deeply without miring it all in too-obscure analogy or metaphor. I struggled with Shelley and Keats. I can appreciate beautiful language and the craft of flow and meter, but if I get to the end of a poem and go huh?? So…what exactly was that about? it’s lost half its magic for me. I’m back in English class trying to decipher the York Notes. I am sure poetry academics and aficionados will cry havoc at that, at a clunky misunderstanding or uneducated interpretation of some of our greatest literary works , but I just like poetry that makes me feel, but leaves me in no doubt as to what and why and how I’m feeling it.

Neil Gaiman is a dream-weaver and, when writing as a teen, much of what I churned out were poor imitations of Gaiman’s style (funnily enough, he says he was the same about Ray Bradbury, another voice that’s imprinted itself in my brain). Still, Neil Gaiman and Ray Bradbury taught me how the everyday can in fact be odd and mysterious and that connections exist everywhere. Through my many failed attempts to crawl inside Neil Gaiman’s brain through my own writing, along with all the other voices and styles clattering around in there, I developed my own voice and style.

Then, in my mid 20s, I discovered Andrea Gibson. They changed me quite profoundly. I first read then discovered their performance  of “Photograph” and it  honed me. I knew I wanted to do that  – to feel and write so hugely and so openly through beautiful words and rhythm and raw emotion.

I discover and devour new poets every day, each of whom add to my cooking pot, give me new sparks and new ways to look at old ideas, but I also get a lot of inspiration – more islands of thoughts in my brain – from documentaries, TED talks, podcasts, essays and articles. I will always  be trying to add to my cooking pot, because the more things in there, the more likely one thing and another will magnetically be drawn together (how this idea is like that one, and bam, you’ve got a metaphor), and that’s an idea, fully formed, right there, which other words and other ideas can migrate towards and hang off of.

A Kaleidoscope of Thought and Concept

Mark Twain said “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations”. This thought plagued me for ages – that I never had, and never would have, an original thought or idea. In Fear Country, I wrote “I’m afraid that everyone has already said everything I have to say, Only said it better. If only I could get better at getting my scribbled post-it notes in tune”.

After getting through that little self-indulgent self-involved pity party, I realised that, OK, maybe there are no original ideas, but I do also believe that the way I shake up my kaleidoscope of gathered concepts and ideas; what I come up with, through the eyes of my personal worldview, influenced by my unique set of circumstances, means no one can tell this story and arrangement of concepts and thoughts in the same way as me. Tell your own story, ‘cause no one else will.

Music Is My Aeroplane

Music is another huge inspiration. Music is, like poetry, an expression of emotion. Music is poetry in sound and feeling. There’s a touch of synesthesia in me, in that I can describe to you the feeling of a song, and what colour it is (mostly by association, it’s not an uncontrolled reflexive thing). I can listen to music and see images. I can listen to music and write what it makes me see or feel. Disney’s Fantasia was mind blowing to me (and still is) because this is what my brain has always done with music – vividly created stories and images inspired by the way it makes me feel.

Music with lyrics are poems in themselves – these can be added to the cooking pot. Maybe a lyric ties in with an idea that’s been bobbing along in my mind, and – bam – another connection, another dot joined, another aspect or element or dimension added to my idea as it grows and takes shape. I also have this thing of associating music with people, places, characters, memories… I can be working on a piece and hear a song (or one occurs to me from one of my brain-islands) that seems to click and fit into place. Then, that song becomes entwined with the piece I’m working on, adds to it, flavours it as I write whilst listening to it. Many of my poem titles are lyrics, song or album titles, either directly or indirectly. I’m thinking of making and sharing a Spotify Playlist of all the songs that have influenced and helped shape my writing!

Write Often

I was going to say here that, like any muscle, the more you use your creative brain, the easier it gets…but I’m not sure that’s true. If it were, Writers Block wouldn’t be a thing, and it is. I’ve been there. It’s beige and black and frustrating as hell. I’m also not going to say I “write everyday” to generate ideas, because I can’t, and don’t, write every day. Some days I need to rest and ponder on the thought-islands and the half-ideas taking shape. Some days, I need to do nothing more creative than eat peanut butter out of the jar and watch cartoons. But, I write often. Writing often, even if just journaling for no one other than myself, keeps the engine ticking, keeps me comfortable with the craft of it and comfortable with my own voice and style. Just free-writing and word association, or playing with word prompts, can help some little things surface that either take shape as a fully formed piece (Watch How I Soar is an example of something small but complete falling out of random journalling) or that could be incorporated into something bigger at a later date.

The Great Outdoors

Anyone who has read more than a handful of my poems will notice that nature features quite a bit. I find the natural world so inspiring. I think it’s because it makes me feel small; it’s humbling. Storms and the sea and mountains and the moon – big, beautiful, intimidating things that make me feel things and pull me out from my naval gazing (of which, as an INFJ poet, there’s a lot) But, it also makes me feel connected to things, earth mother style. Growing things, life happening around me, all these other processes and networks connecting around and through me. So, nature features A LOT in my writing. In fact, it was pointed out to me that around 90% of my poems feature something “outdoorsy”, and considering I am SO not the outdoorsy type, this makes me laugh. Except some of the biggest strongest most powerful feelings I’ve ever had (loved ones notwithstanding) have been in the presence of nature. And I write what I know. And I know feelings.

I walk a lot, since I left my old job. There are a lot of trees near where I live and I go for a stroll. Walking is, apparently, a writer’s pasttime. Dickens was, I am told, an avid “stroller”. I just like being near trees, but I think it gives my brain time to ponder and think and be away from a screen for a bit.

Joining the Dots

You might recall that this is how I ended my last blog too. I write to join the dots. The dots inspire me, and they come together in odd and surprising ways.

For example, One More Mile was inspired by a Brain Pickings article on why the sky and sea are blue, which included the line “the blue light is the light that gets lost”. There was a “ping” – what a beautiful turn of phrase. Lost light. Where does it go? Why is it lost? Is it sad? We say “blue” when we mean sad… coupled with a conversation with my husband about what colours animals could see. He told me dogs see in shades of blue. Aha! Another “ping”. That’s where the blue light goes! The dogs bring it home. Throw in some feelings about friendship and love and wanting to be there for someone….and there was a poem. Tom McRae’s song “One More Mile” has the line “one more mile until the lost become found”; that seemed to fit well with what I was writing so the song  weaved its way into the feel of it all too (and became the title).

This creating, this weaving of ideas and connecting the dots is like ad-hoc stove-top cooking – bunging in what you find in the cupboard, a pinch of this, a splash of that, remembering that old pot of cloves in the back of the pantry (true story, not related to writing – my nan really did once find a pot of cloves she’d had since before she’d gotten married, making it 30+ years old). You’re not sure entirely what you’re doing as your stir it, you’re not necessarily entirely paying attention to everything that gets thrown in. Sometimes what comes out at the other end tastes amazing, but, if anyone asked you to write down the recipe, you’d be buggered if you could tell them. Sometimes, something magical happens when cooking on the fly. The right frame of mind, the right ingredients, the right accidental extras, maybe the wind is blowing in the right direction. It’s sort of the same with writing, and the cooking-pot of ideas. Of course, the flip side of that is equally true – sometimes entirely bad, horrible, nasty-tasting things happen when cooking (forgetting you’re using self-raising flour and adding extra baking soda, substituting margarine for butter…soufflé….). Sometimes whole poems get scraped into the bin. Sometimes, you can salvage bits that get sewn into something else.

The bit of the “where do your ideas come from” question that I can’t answer is exactly why I see something in a certain way, why something will pique my interest or get stored in my brain, or how these pockets and islands of inspiration get attached to each other. Maybe I’ve just got more used to spotting these funny little “pings”. I can’t tell you why this will end up being connected to that, and I can’t really tell you how – it doesn’t happen the same way every time. The strange universal thread that runs through all things, weaving this way and that, will do as it will. What I can tell you is that, in a hundred different ways, stories need to be told and will find a way to be heard one way or another. I’m not sure I’m entirely in control of how that happens; I’m just a conduit, a Major Tom pointing my spaceship in the right direction, hoping it knows which way to go.

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