I can sense it before it happens now.
Something about the look in their eye. A slightly quizzical glance, as though they’re weighing something up. This is normally the point in the evening just after the information that I write/perform has been introduced. Generally not by me, as I usually try to avoid having to answer the inevitable questio-
“So where do you get your ideas?”
A-a-and it’s all downhill from there – me stuttering away, and desperately trying not to a) bore everybody, b) sound pretentious, or c) both. I always do my ‘writer’ face too, mainly in an attempt to negate the utter nonsense spewing from my mouth as I try to answer such a difficult question.
Actually, no. That’s not true. It’s not actually a difficult question, in fact on one level (I’ll mention the other level later…) it’s an incredibly simple one.
Ideas are everywhere.
Pick up a newspaper, sit on a bus, go for a walk, do pretty much anything and you’ll be surrounded by ideas.
Think of any recent news story, for instance. Got one? OK, now imagine it’s not true. As in, the entire story as it was reported didn’t happen and it was all an elaborate set up. Given this as a starting point, what’s the story behind this lie? Who set it up, and why? Think about what it would take to orchestrate it – whatever it is – in such a convincing manner that it’s actually reported as news.
If it’s a murder, for instance, why would it be faked? Where is the supposed victim now? Were they in on it too? Probably, but in what specific capacity? And why would they essentially forfeit the rest of their current life by going to live in hiding? What are they gaining from it, or what were they threatened with if they didn’t go through with it?
It works with more mundane things too. Go for a walk in a local park and look around. See that couple sitting by the pond, snuggled into each other? Are they married? Engaged? Cheating? How did they meet? Did they like each other at first, if not then why not? And what changed their minds? Will they still be together in a year? Why/why not? Are their families happy they’re together? Are they happy they’re together?
We are totally bombarded with events and information all the time. On any given day, life can be busy, relaxing, noisy, quiet, emotional, calm, colourful, bland, confusing, straightforward, happy, sad, boring and fascinating. Sometimes all at the same time. I don’t know where you’re reading this – you could be using a computer, your phone, a tablet, who knows. But wherever you are, you’re not in a vacuum, there are other things going on around you, and other thoughts going on inside you. If you look at each one of these things as a potential idea or source of inspiration, then you’ll see what I mean when I say that ideas are everywhere.
I always feel that the real question – the second of the ‘levels’ I mentioned above – isn’t about where ideas come from, but more about why idea number 28 got chosen over idea 43. To me that’s a more interesting – and infinitely more complex – question.
Unfortunately, that makes it very difficult to answer.
And this isn’t a way of promoting some kind of bullshit mystique around being a writer by the way, where I walk the streets at 2am smoking a Gauloise cigarette and quoting Nietzsche until my ‘muse’ appears to guide me to the perfect idea through interpretive dance. Not at all. Writing is work. Hard, frustrating, why-do-I-not-just-go-do-fun-stuff-like-everybody-else work.
As a comparison, stand up is different. If I think it’s funny, I use it. If the audience then agree with me that its funny, then it stays in my set. If not, it goes. Simple.*
Writing fiction is much trickier, because the test isn’t ‘is it funny?’, as much as ‘does it resonate with me on some level?’. And your guess is as good as mine as to why some ideas ‘resonate’ and why some don’t. I recently wrote a blog post about a real-life crime case that I couldn’t get out of my head, and I still have no idea why, out of the hundreds of cases I’ve read, that this one in particular struck a chord in me.
Looking at the novels I’ve written, the first was based on my experiences as an actor/comedian, and the second based on various sleep disorders I have the hilariously good fortune to suffer from. But I’ve obviously experienced more than two things in my life, so what made me choose those two particular subjects to write about over every other idea I’ve ever had?
The honest – and probably quite unsatisfactory – answer is that those ideas resonated with me and made me want to explore them. Which is, of course, just a nice way of saying that the honest answer is that I have no idea.
See what I mean about the question being complicated…?
In saying all this, sometimes ideas do leap out of nowhere and present themselves. I remember being on holiday a while ago and seeing this kid sitting by himself on the beach. He was miming the act of cutting his wrists, then convulsing as though he’d been electrocuted, and would then laugh manically. He did this about three of four times, with a period of around a minute or so in between where he’d sit and stare at the sea. Eventually, he stood up and walked back towards the hotel.
A lot about this scene unnerved me (and, I assume, anybody else who’d seen him). Why was this kid miming slitting his wrists? Had he seen it on TV? And why was he laughing about it? People on TV generally don’t commit suicide then laugh manically about it. Maybe it was based in reality then? Maybe he’d just witnessed his parents execute some kind of blood-drenched murder-suicide in their hotel room, didn’t know how to comprehend what he’d seen, and strolled downstairs in a trance. In his shock, he then went through the motions trying to make sense of them, then finally felt prepared enough to go back upstairs to join his dead/dying parents. Although I don’t even want to contemplate what that might have looked like…
So, why did this weird scene inspire me to write the short story Child’s Play (from The Walk)?
Let’s be honest here, why wouldn’t it…?
That is an exception though. Most of the time there’s just some elusive quality about an idea that grabs you and makes you want to explore it creatively. It’s not even a necessarily intellectual decision, it’s just something that feels like it’d be interesting to explore, or funny to use on stage, or entertaining to write about, and – for others – to read about.
And I guess that’s the point here. Why do we choose one idea over another? Because it feels right.
Maybe the answer is pretty simple after all.
*This is obviously oversimplifying how much tweaking, trial-and-error, and embarrassed silences go into successful stand up, but I guess that’s a post for another day.