“Where do you get your ideas?”
Man, I hate that question. Not because I’m jealously guarding writerly secrets. Not because I haven’t thought about it. A lot. Just because when I try to answer that question honestly, I babble.
Here’s the thing. Ideas are strange creatures. I know they’re out there. I see them out of the corner of my eye. But it might be in the grocery store. Or in the woods. Or looking at me from the window of a passing bus. Ideas don’t seem to have an established, identifiable habitat. Or habits. Sometimes they’re out wandering at 2 AM. Sometimes they refuse to show up at all until sleep needs have been lavishly met. They eat chocolate. No, grapefruit. Spicy fish?
It’s a puzzle. I can’t give a satisfying, tidy answer. But here are a few things that work for me.
Show up at your desk. And get out of the house.
Ideas like to know that there’s a place for them. Having a regular writing schedule let’s them know that when they show up, they’ll be treated with respect and given the warmest spot by the fire. They tend to show up if they know you’ll be there to open the door for them.
Until. . .they don’t. If for three or four days, I’ve been showing up and the ideas haven’t, if I’m starting to notice this fact and get a wee bit wound up about it, it’s time to get out of the house. Strap on the snowshoes or load the kayak on the car. Go into town. Do something I don’t usually do. Ideas like to slip in unnoticed. So give them that chance. And then get back to your desk.
Really think about form. No, quit thinking so much.
Ideas come during times when I’m thinking carefully about some element of the picture book form. For example, I’m in love with the page turns in picture books. They can set up a joke. They can be used as time travel devices. Or to manipulate rhythm. So I might just sit and think, “What could I do with page turns?” After a while, my brain will say, “Hey, know what would be funny?” And here we go.
But then other times, a great idea comes from just playing, not thinking about much of anything. This is why you should walk out to the bus stop with your kids and play rhyming games while you wait. Or trade jokes. Or be silly and talk in badly done accents. Or draw dumb pictures in your writing notebook. Goofing off is a fertile state of mind. Ideas love it.
Relax. Or induce panic. Either one.
Ideas like relaxed writers. So breathe a little. Defend parts of the day from busyness. Give yourself space to just be. Space for ideas to float in for a soft landing. It’s part of your job. Nice, huh.
On the other hand, in a pinch, ideas can be flushed from the bushes by a good, old fashioned dose of panic. I hate this method. It has side effects that I do not enjoy. But when I feel like I’m in a rut, like everything I’m writing is recycled from something I’ve done before, it has to happen.
Sign up for a stretch class. Is it something you’re not even sure you can quite do yet? Taught by someone you have immense respect for and would hate to disappoint? Are there assignments that cause you to break into a sweat just thinking about them? Great. That should do it.
Or give yourself a deadline. In the next twenty days, write twenty picture books—one per day, from nothingness to The End every day. Warn your family ahead of time and then shut yourself in your room. Don’t allow yourself escape hatches. The first couple of days will be fun. Then it will get ugly. But part way through, out of sheer desperation, your brain will bump out of its well worn path.
So . . .
I guess what I’m saying is to keep things lively. Mix it up. Nothing works all the time. When one thing stops working, move to another. Then another. Until you circle back around again. Make peace with the fact that it’s a little weird, a little messy, a little mysterious. And that when you try to answer that question about where ideas come from, you’ll babble.
You can visit her online at http://mylisalarsen.com