September 7, 2012

"Where Do You Get Your Ideas?"

        This is probably the number one question I get asked, whether it's at an art show or a book talk, whether I'm conversing with children or adults.  "Where do you get your ideas?"  And it's a hard question to answer.  That is, the answer is actually extremely simple: Anywhere and everywhere.  But that hardly seems adequate when I'm trying to give a helpful answer.  So I think about what more I can say in order to be more specific or more concrete.
        The thing about ideas is that they're not like the rubber I carve.  I can't say, "I order them online in big sheets and cut off what I need.  Here's the web site where you can get some, too!"  I think of ideas as more like birds - they're around all the time, but the trick is to notice them and learn to identify them.  Or perhaps a useful analogy is Sherlock Holmes's explanation of observation.  In "A Scandal in Bohemia" he says, "You see, but you do not observe.  The distinction is clear."  In "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" he specifies the difference, "You can see everything.  You fail, however, to reason from what you see."  Observation, therefore, is not simply seeing things but paying enough attention to them to note their significance.  A large part of getting ideas is similar: be observant enough, be aware enough, to notice those things that might make a beautiful piece of art or an interesting element of a story.  Take nothing for granted.
        A writing example I've shared with students comes from Kate and Sam and the Cheesemonster.  Kate and Sam are helped multiple times in the story by beetles who have received news of the quest through the Beetle Bulletin.  The beetle Maximilian Athanasius Plunkett explains, “It is true that we are miniscule in comparison to you, but even if each of us travels only a tiny distance, we will always meet another beetle, and that beetle will always meet another, and so the Beetle Bulletin can be passed over the entire face of the earth in time.  Did you know that we beetles are the most numerous group of animals?  One quarter of all animals alive on earth today are beetles!”  The beetle struck a pose with one spiny foot on his chest.  His tiny hoarse voice rang out with pride…
        The idea for the Beetle Bulletin came from reading that factoid in a kids' science magazine.   I'd already put a minor beetle character in Kate and Sam and the Chipmunks of Doom, and when I read this staggering fact that nearly 25% of all life-forms on earth are beetles, I knew that the beetles needed a bigger role.  So, where did the idea come from?  Well, it was probably just about anywhere anyone could read about beetles - in that magazine, in the encyclopedia, in books, on television shows…  So in a way, I didn't come up with the idea, I just realized its potential.  (This is also a good example of the application of "What if?")
        This idea of gathering up potential ideas is what I explain to students as a "writer's piggy bank."  In a real piggy bank you throw in all your money, in any amounts large or small, and eventually when you need to buy something, you open it up and see what you've got.  In the same way if you save up all those little interesting tidbits that come into your mind - cool character names, intriguing settings, elements of plot, interesting facts, surprising situations, memories of feelings, catchy turns of phrase - you're bound to have at least a few great ideas to use when you start to put together a story.
        And of course art can work the same way: it isn't so much that inspiration occasionally strikes magically out of the blue, it's that inspiration is anywhere and everywhere if you can only learn to recognize it.  From moments in my life ("The Puddle"), to everyday sights ("Dandelion"), to poems I've read ("The Listeners"), to things I've seen in books ("Three at the Water Hole"), to quirky things that catch my attention ("Yapok"), to items I've found at the dump ("Underwood"), anything is a potential subject for art as long as I remember to consider it in that light.
        So keep your eyes and your heart open, and don't just see, but observe.  Then you're ready to welcome all those wonderful ideas that really are everywhere.

[Pictures:  Downy Woodpecker, rubber block print with red watercolor by AEGN, 2006;
Rhinoceros Beetle, rubber block print by AEGN, 1997.]

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