I was at a fiction reading once – actually Jonathan Franzen was the author but it could have been any author anywhere – and in the question and answer period afterward someone asked him where he got his ideas and how did he get started writing them.
This is one of the two questions people seem to always ask writers in these post-reading sessions. The other is: what are your writing habits? That one is easy to answer. I write a thousand words a day even if it’s on the back of an envelope while in the back of a bus. Or: On days when life doesn’t interfere and I can’t procrastinate myself out of it, I sit at my desk and write.
But where do you get your ideas? How do you answer that? You can’t. At least, I can’t. I would have to say something like, “I’m an intuitive writer, so I just start writing and see what comes of it. Sometimes something nearly perfect, sometimes something merely salvageable, sometimes crap.” It’s not a very good answer. It’s not the answer this asker was seeking.
She wanted to know how a famous writer fetches an idea out of the air and makes it real. Only, she doesn’t want it fetched from the air. She wants it fetched from the daily news, or a brilliant realization of how daily life in America is like Stalinist Russia. In other words, she wants there to have been an idea, a big idea, an important idea. She wanted the writing to have some big reason for being made. She was, she admitted, finding it impossible to write. Nothing about her own observations and knowledge of lives being lived seemed sufficient. It’s a good thing I wasn’t the one being questioned. I would have stood up and yelled. ‘For God’s sake, just do it. Stop worrying you’ll fail. You will fail. Stop worrying you have nothing important to say. It’s all important. Just shut up and start.’
It doesn’t matter where you get your ideas, doesn’t matter if a story is launched from something you read, or a phrase, an image, or an event. Fiction is about life, and no one would ask you where you got your life.
As a writer, I see my job as trying to reflect the world around me with as deep an understanding as I can muster. The only way I can understand deeply is to wrestle with my characters until I find the words that best convey their situation, and why it’s important to them, and how it changed them. I tend to wrestle my characters once they’re already on the page, flipping them this way and that until they give up their secrets. Some writers, like Edward Jones, wrestle their characters in their head for a long time before putting them on paper. It doesn’t matter which you do or what Jonathan Franzen does. As James Baldwin said, “Everyone works the way he can work.” I admit the work is daunting, especially when taking into consideration all the elements you are supposed to control: character, plot, place, point of view, voice, and so on. It’s work. Its work I do very, very slowly, but it’s an honor to do this work.
I don’t remember how Franzen answered the woman. He seemed a kind man, and his answer was kind and, if I remember properly (not always a given) he rambled along the lines of ‘it varies’. So, not having the wisdom of Franzen to close with, I give you that of William Saroyen, “How do you write? You write, man, you write, that’s how, and you do it the way the old English walnut tree puts forth leaf and fruit every year by the thousands…”