Ideas can come from anywhere. In some interviews I’ve read, authors insist that they don’t know where they get their plots and characters. Others recount long stories describing the source of their inspiration.
For me, the best ideas come from combinations. It’s like a chemical reaction. Stories I’ve read, things I’ve seen, snatches of conversation, images… they bounce around, reacting with one another to form new and interesting products. Sometimes I get a flash of catalytic inspiration where lines and phrases pop up without any effort. At other times I have to let things stew, jotting down ideas before they fade away again, trying to salvage solids from a mess of solution.
I think I’ve written here before not to let those flashes of inspiration mislead you. Often they’re mirages – lush and inviting at first, but fading away as you approach. Then you either shuffle back to the project you abandoned or chase another imagined oasis on the horizon. Too much jumping from idea to idea ensures that you’ll never get anything done.
However, sometimes things have to be written. A perfect paragraph or poem that writes itself is like a butterfly. (Getting metaphor overload yet?) If you don’t capture it right away, it’ll fly off and you’ll be left with an indistinct memory. Even though I typically advise caution and prefer meticulously outlining my thoughts, it can be exciting and rewarding to race across the landscape chasing butterflies.
This happened to me last night. Several stories I’d read lined up, a few phrases melding together. I mixed together current event snippets I read in the paper, the image of a little kid with broken eyes, and the question: When you’re born, are you living or dying? These all coalesced into a few lines of text. Immediately, I grabbed a piece of paper and started writing. I didn’t know who the peaker was, who they were talking to, or why. As the words kept coming, I found out bits and pieces. It was a new experience for me .I’m used to knowing everything before I start to write. Typically I scoff at people who say they have to get to know their characters. You make your characters. This time, though, it was different. I had no idea who this person was or what they had to say. I was just along for the ride.
What resulted was a rather weird, improperly punctuated flash that reads more like slam poetry than anything else. It’s different from most of the stuff I write. Maybe I’ll play around with it later. Maybe it’ll rot away in my desk drawer. I don’t know. But I followed the butterfly and tried something new, which was a lot of fun. Don’t be afraid, once in a while, to let the inspiration take over and see where it leads you.