Friday, January 24, 2014

"Questions 67 & 68"

Before I get to this week’s question—my first blog post for Criminal Minds!—I want to thank everyone here for letting me join the panel and give special thanks to Alan Orloff in particular for inviting me to come aboard.

Now to the question at hand: “What’s wrong with asking ‘Where do you get your ideas?’”

The first thing that came to mind here was a PEN/Faulkner event with Doris Lessing a few years back. During the q&a, a woman stood to ask whether Lessing wrote on a computer or used a pen or pencil, and after a withering gaze and a long pause, Lessing replied something along the lines of “Why on earth would you ask such a thing?” I don’t recall the exact words there or the diatribe that followed, but I do remember feeling terribly glad I wasn’t that poor woman in the audience.

Even though I’ve never felt vehemently against that pencil/pen/computer question, I also don’t see much value in it. But I do understand what prompts it, and I think it comes from the same place as the question at hand here: a reader’s interest in knowing more about a favorite writer or about the stories behind the stories; an aspiring writer’s curiosity about even the most mundane details of the creative process (sometimes with an eye toward picking up tips and tricks of the trade, as Meredith hinted at on Monday); our shared fascination with creativity in general. I’ll admit my own fascination with photographs of writer’s workspaces (one of my own favorites is E.B. White’s, shown right), though I certainly wouldn’t try to fashion my own desk like his or anyone else’s. And while I’ve loved various writers’ tips about finding story ideas—Read the local police blotter! Eavesdrop on conversations! Follow writing prompts and see where they lead!—I’ve never been much good at putting those tips into practice myself, at least not profitably.

My real trouble with the question is that I’m not sure how to answer it satisfactorily. The honest response is that different ideas come from different places. My stories “A Voice From the Past” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine) and “The White Rose of Memphis” (Needle) both started with me writing down dreams I had. The EQMM stories “A Drowning at Snow’s Cut” and “Rearview Mirror” (recently reprinted in the anthology The Crooked Road) were both inspired by trips I took to New Mexico and in North Carolina, respectively, and “Rearview Mirror” actually got its first nudge from a photo in a Washington Post fiction contest. Of my two stories for EQMM last year, “The Care and Feeding of Houseplants” emerged from some vague musings on betrayal and cruelty—sparked by the situation of a man wanting to shake hands with the fella he’s cuckolding—and “Ithaca 37” came out of a Facebook conversation: I mentioned having seen the Michael Caine film Get Carter, a friend commented on the gun Caine was holding in the movie poster I’d linked, and somehow the whole story fell out of that small detail.

Some of that may be anecdotally interesting to readers, like the trivia in those pop up videos on VH1 (and with about as much weight). Some of it may add a little depth to someone’s enjoyment of a story, though you’d likely be bored to tears by a full slideshow of our photos from the Southwest. And in other cases, the story behind the story has no connection to a published piece of writing. “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” for example, came to me in the middle of a Chicago concert my wife dragged me to. I was underwhelmed, my mind wandered. That’s all there was to it, and no reader of that story is going to gain anything fresh or useful from knowing that background. (In fact, I apologize if you’ve read this far!)

As for any aspiring writers who ask that question about “ideas” with an eye toward finding your own, I won’t go all Doris Lessing on you, but…. Trust that the best ideas don’t come from some special place, but just from keeping a writerly eye on all aspects of the day—pulling the interesting parts together, building something new from it all. So don’t keep a dream journal (if you don’t already keep on) or take long trips (unless there’s some place you want to go) or watch more classic movies (unless you enjoy them). Don’t start reading the police blotter or eavesdropping on strangers or doing anything that’s not already part of what you do and what you love and what makes your day complete.

Oh, and despite the Chicago reference in the title of this post, don’t go to one of their concerts, OK—not under any circumstances. I'm serious about that. — Art Taylor


Sherry Harris said...

Great blog, Art! I always hope I'll have some inspiring dream but so far just a weird mishmash of stuff.

Dana King said...

I've learned the trick isn't in getting ideas: it's in getting and working with the ideas that lead to stories I can write well. I spent almost a year working on a novel, only to set it aside because I finally figured out I'd chosen the wrong protagonist and setting. Same idea, different venue, and it worked fine.

As to the worthiness of such questions, writers like to tease about those that come up time and time again, but I learned a valuable lesson when my first book came out: readers are fascinated by these little things like ideas and plotting and pencil/keyboard. To many of them, writing is some kind of alchemy, and they're genuinely interested in the parts that aren't obvious, just as writers are fascinated about the minutiae of other things in which we have an interest. Our job is to find ways to answer that not only entertains and enlightens the questioner, but ourselves.

As for Doris Lessing, I hope no one in that audience ever buys another of her books. She makes a living because those same people give her their money and their time; she owes them better than what she gave.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Sherry and Dana. Much appreciated!

And yep, Dana, I think you're right. As I said, I find myself fascinated by process too and the story behind the story, even if think that some of the best of those backgrounders are individual anecdotes rather than a blanket "Here's where I get my ideas" kind of thing. (And yes, the hard part is getting them to work. All the stories in my head just seem flat-out brilliant, but getting them into some workable order on the pages, something that's not frankly embarrassing.... well, that's another matter.)

As for poor Doris making a living from those books: Sadly, not anymore. She died in November of last year. :-(


Paul D. Marks said...

I agree with you about Chicago, but luckily I've never been dragged to one of their concerts. Plenty of others I didn't want to see; some were even good. And I'm with you on the fascination with other writers' workspaces and offices.

But as to the question at hand, I think people just want the process demystified. And they might think a writer has some magic answer. But eventually if they want to write they'll figure it out and that ideas are all around them.


Art Taylor said...

I agree, Paul—and I guess that's what I was trying to say. I'm fascinated about process myself and love talking craft, but I also realize that there's no magic answer--and I think the best discussions in this area are ones that explore the creative process without expecting it to be explained in a "Here's how to do it" way.

As for Chicago, my big gripe is that most of the members aren't playing anymore, so you're basically paying to hear a pricey cover band, right?

Alan Orloff said...

Welcome to the blog, Art! Nice post! But I have to disagree about Chicago. I saw them in concert last year and they were pretty darn good. Groovy, in fact.

Art Taylor said...

I think "groovy" says it all, Alan. :-)

Meredith Cole said...

Welcome to Criminal Minds Art! We're so glad to have you... Love your advice on "keeping a writerly eye on all aspects of the day" -- and on avoiding Chicago concerts.

Susan C Shea said...

Welcome to Criminal Minds and congratulations for a terrific first post. I did an author event last night where a non-writing member of the audience asked exactly that question (as always happens). It never bothers me because, as you said, the questioner is just trying to see inside the process. I could ask similar questions about plumbing repairs, fancy baking, or statistical research. What we don't (yet) practice looks difficult, even exotic and unknowable!

Catriona McPherson said...

Welcome aboard, Art! I think "don't take long trips unless there's someplace you want to go" might be my new motto. Thank you.

Re. Doris - love her and mourn her death. But I don't suffer people who don't suffer fools gladly gladly.

Alan Orloff said...

And Catriona, I think this will be MY new motto; "But I don't suffer people who don't suffer fools gladly gladly."

Art Taylor said...

Thanks everyone! So glad to be aboard here!

David Dean said...

I didn't like Chicago when the members were original. Great piece, Art. I particularly liked the "writerly eye" bit.

Good ideas seldom occur to me, as such. It's more of the details of life thing you mentioned. Something (not necessarily anything riveting, mind you) keeps returning to my mind and I try to turn it into a story to make it go away.

I look forward to your future blogs, and stories.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, David! I think you and I work the same way in many respects. Thanks for reading and chiming in. :-)