People often ask writers and other creative people where they get their ideas. There's a sense that there's something mystical about getting an idea, or magic, or at least not exactly straightforward. If you haven't read it, Neil Gaiman has a killer post about how he started answering this question with the truth. "I make them up," he said, "Out of my head." People didn't like this answer. They wanted something jazzier.
The singer-songwriter Willie Nelson once said, "The air is full of tunes; I just reach up and pick one." I love this quote (and reference it all the time -- so forgive me if I've you’ve read this from me before.) It captures so much about the ever-present nature of ideas, and something about how one bright shiny idea gets singled out amidst the clamor of many others. It also captures the conscious role of the creator -- and that's something I know to be true about picking an idea. You have to pick. You have to bring a discerning mind to the process. Perhaps Nelson recognizes the ripeness and beauty and readiness of an idea. For me, it's as if I can literally hear the idea asking to be chosen. Or, more precisely, it's as if I can't ignore the noise of it – it’s louder, more insistent than the others. It won’t go away.
What happens exactly is this: I have the thought that maybe I should set my story in an avocado orchard. It's a thought like any other -- it comes, it goes, and there are a thousand others after it. But the next day in the newspaper there's an article on avocado farming. A few days later there's a piece on NPR about the rise in the conumption of avocados. A week or so later, I pick up a magazine at the doctor's office and there's an article about how some celebrity just bought an avocado farm. Who could ignore this kind of noise? Not me. My last novel was set, in part, on an avocado farm -- andi t's worth noting that I had this avocado farm in my head long before I had the characters or even the story. It was avocados first, and then everything else followed.
People new to writing, or to the creative life, may recognize the insistent idea, the shiny idea, the idea that's ripe for choosing, but they may not be comfortable committing to it. How do you know it's the right idea? What happens if it's the wrong idea? And what about the other ideas they are ignoring in favor of this one? The truth is that you will get no assurance. There will be no guarantee. Painter David Hockney has the perfect answer for these questions. "Sometimes," he said, "I just begin."
It's that easy, and that difficult. You pick. You begin.
And how do you know when to abandon your idea and choose another? My favorite answer for that comes from Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus.
"I knew I had something in that alchemical way when you know you’ve tossed ingredients around in a combination that works. It had sparks and smoke and potential. I was petrified about getting it right, and I nearly gave up several times especially once I started querying, but I knew it would continue to haunt me if I abandoned it."