by Stephen May
‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ This is the question most often asked of professional writers. There’s no doubt that ideas are troublesome creatures: elusive, slippery and prone to fading from view just when you think you’ve captured them. And some ideas turn out to have been time-wasters all along.
Ultimately, however, ideas come from paying attention. Keep a notebook and record everything that seems striking: conversations; images; places; people. Look and learn. Listen and learn. Talk to people. Ask them about their lives and note down the answers.
Be generous with your own stories and you’ll get back more in return. Go to the theatre. See foreign films. Go to a dance class. Accept invitations. Say yes to experiences, especially ones that you usually say no to. Be an anthropologist in your own life. Record meticulously and honestly.
And read. And read and read and read. And read some more. Become your local librarian’s best customer. Other people’s good ideas and good writing will help your own to flourish. Writers write and writers read. Those are the two most important things.
Try to have a life too. Cyril Connolly once said that the pram in the hall was ‘the enemy of promise’, but the pram in the hall – the chaos of family life – might be your material. So might your job in a bank, or your time as a security guard, or as a supply teacher. Or your divorce. Or your great-grandfather’s divorce. Or anything. All the ideas you could ever need are out there, but you’ve got to have your antenna switched on.
And if you still haven’t got enough material – make stuff up. Never let the facts get in the way of your story. This applies even if you are writing non-fiction. Perhaps especially then.
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