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