Where Do Writing Ideas Come From?

You must be an insatiable reader as well as a careful listener to be a writer.

Posted Dec 12, 2018

“Where do you get the ideas for your columns?”

Every time I give a talk, do an event, or speak at a writers’ conference, this one of the first questions. It’s right up there with, “Do you think a talented person can make a living as a writer?” (No) and “Do you write every day?” (Yes, but sometimes it’s just a note saying “NEED KITTY LITTER.")

How do I get ideas? I write everything down. I sneak overheard lines onto the backs of receipts, which I insist on taking even though I’ve learned recently that expecting paper receipts is a sign that I’m outdated. “You don’t need a copy because you’ll automatically have an electronic record and you should remember that printing anything also hurts the environment,” a younger friend explained gently, as if telling me that carrier pigeons have been replaced by the postal service. She might have even taken my hand as she said the words, as if to soften the blow.

Look, I am a fan of the environment; my closest friends can testify that I’ve lived in it much of my life. But I am also a fan of printing things out. It’s not only when tax time comes that I want those receipts in front of me: I want those slips of paper with overheard conversations at the gas station right in front of me when it’s time to start writing.

Where does writing come from? It comes from other writing. It’s like love or faith or, to be less lofty, money: to those who hath, more shall be given. It doesn’t seem fair, but that’s how it works. Words beget words. That’s why you need to be an insatiable reader to be even a beginning writer. It’s also why you need to keep writing once you start in order to flourish, even if you’re not working on a big project or when you’re unsure where your work is headed.

When you sit down to work, you rely on your own words, phrases and ideas as well as ones from those who inspire you. Read as much as you can from as many places as you can about as many topics as you can. People used to keep “commonplace books,” where they transcribed their favorite passages or glued articles from the newspapers. It's always been a great idea. A kind of intellectual scrapbook, they’ve now been replaced, like paper receipts, by electronic versions. I often use my Facebook page to post favorite quotations or links to pieces of writing I think are useful and important.

But I still have my notebooks and my paper-scrap files. These are irreplaceable.

As has every other bookish kid in the universe, I kept notebooks and diaries in childhood. Mine were from Woolworth's and had a lock and key. My preferred writing tools were Sheaffer cartridge fountain pens and Flair pens in “dramatic colors.” I don’t exactly know why teal was dramatic but it was. At 49 cents a pop, I considered those Flairs a serious investment: Earning a dollar an hour baby-sitting, I chose my colors carefully.

My notebooks were filled with color. When inspired, I would draw hearts, birdhouses, and cats in the margins using Venus Paradise colored pencils. (Absolutely true, most-embarrassing story from sixth-grade—transposing the initial letters of that product when discussing with an art teacher why I liked to draw. And because don’t have the imagination to invent a story like that, I write only non-fiction.)

My mother was very sick when I was in my early teens and for reasons I could never understand threw away my earliest diaries. I still feel the loss and I can, quite literally, see some of the pages. (I know, for example, that one diary started with the line “Today I swam in the deep end” because I was proud to start the book with that sentence.)

But if I’ve never made up for their absence, I’ve filled bookcases with their successors; at least some of these are going to the special collections library at Dartmouth College so that other bookish kids will be able to look at them, evidence of a time when people wrote things down on paper and scribbled in the margins, putting down words that will turn into ideas a columns and books.

And even when the very paper on which they’re written becomes outdated, they’ll still act as a receipt offered by time.

Remember that the texture of language matters: Nothing significant has ever started with a general idea. It starts with a memory. It starts with a piece of dialogue. It starts with a perspective.  Everything that is worth telling starts with a story. Retrieve your memories, old and new, before your experience of them becomes over-processed. Go back to the beginning: Read everything you've written down.