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Where do writers get their ideas?

For most creative writers, the most frequent question you’ll hear is: “Where do you get your ideas?” This is especially true of prolific writers who can dash off an article or a blog post, or even a novel, with the rapidity of a Seth Godin or a Stephen King.

People ask this question for two reasons. First, the answer can say a lot of interesting things about the writer being asked. And second, non-writers don’t seem to understand the nature of the writer’s most important tool, and therefore feel compelled to solve the mystery.

The tool I’m referring to is a little something I like to call intuitive assimilation.

When you’re a kid, storytelling comes naturally. Mom and Dad read you Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings and all of a sudden you’re capable of imagining your own fantasy worlds and magical companions. Well, the way creative writers get their ideas is no different, it’s just more sophisticated.

Let’s say you loved the coming-of-age aspect in The Godfather and how Michael Corleone goes from being a strait-laced soldier to a cynical mob boss. What an epic character arc!

You also loved the post-apocalyptic, dystopian settings of videogames like Fallout, movies like Mad Max and V for Vendetta and books like The Hunger Games.

Then there was that girl who got away, the one who would have been the love of your life, except that you blew your chance, and she ended up with someone else.

And how about that time when you were sixteen and you and your friends got caught by the police with a few bottles of hard liquor in the trunk of your car, and you had to sit in a jail cell for an hour until your dad came to pick you up, and while you were in that jail cell, drunk at 2 in the morning, you pretended you were living under a harsh totalitarian government that was keeping you imprisoned for being a member of an underground rebel movement?

What do all of these seemingly unrelated experiences have in common?

(Besides the fact that I combined them to generate one of my own novels?)

They’re experiences you cherish. You’ll never forget them. You’ll always try and relive them the same way you lived them the first time (without involving the police, hopefully).

But it’s not enough to just watch the movie or read the book again. You ‘re an artist; you’re driven to create. You want other people to experience those same emotions that you once felt, and you want them to do it in a world you created.

This is where the skill of intuitive assimilation comes in. To start generating your story, you have to:

(1) use your intuition to dig deep into the memory of each experience and find the element that makes it special, beyond the simple fact that it happened to you (for example, the boy in the jail cell imagining he’s a rebel leader could be the start of an epic character arc in which he ACTUALLY DOES become a rebel leader, and more importantly, a man)

(2) use what you’ve observed from reading/watching other well-crafted stories/books/movies as guides to help you assimilate your own valuable insights into an overarching theme that suits the kind of story you want to tell (i.e. “The leader is the one who has to sacrifice the most.”)

(3) and then, finally, use your own first-hand experiences to concretize your theme in a way that is colorful and suits your genre. In our example of the boy who becomes a rebel leader, since I want to use the example mentioned above about the “girl who got away” while keeping the theme of the leader having to sacrifice the most, I might force my boy-rebel-hero to choose between abandoning his men and running away with the girl to start a new life, or leading his men into victory even though it means never being able to see the girl again. Get the picture?

Now, here’s the key: Make this process of intuitive assimilation AUTOMATIC through extensive practice.

Once that happens, you’ll come up with so many ideas for stories, they’ll leak out your ears. Then, next time someone asks where you get your ideas, you can say “I use a skill known as intuitive assimilation, which I have spent many years developing, to extract valuable insights from emotional moments in my life for the express purpose of assimilating them into an overarching theme I can then use to create authentic characters with whom to thrust my story into an unforgettable, but utterly appropriate, climax leading to a satisfying resolution and therefore fitting conclusion to my vision of what life can and should be like.”

No, you wouldn’t really say that. You would just shrug and say something cool and cryptic like: “They just come to me.”

What do you think? Where do you get your ideas?

– Rich

*Photo attributed to Dave McLear
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