This is the latest in my occasional column about writing science fiction and fantasy that appears in the Saskatchewan Writers Guild magazine Freelance.
Authors who are regularly interviewed often profess to hate one particular question, the cliché of clichés: “Where do you get your ideas?”
(One oft-quoted response to this question is that given by the great science fiction author Harlan Ellison, who claimed he picked up his ideas from a post office box in Schenectady, New York, where they were regularly sent by a service to which he subscribed.)
In my podcast, The Worldshapers, I ask that question in a variety of ways because I believe, however much authors claim to hate it, it’s still a valid question. In the podcast, I’m usually focused on where the author got the idea for the specific book we’re discussing, but there is a deeper version of the question that gets touched on, on occasion, about which I’ve thought a great deal. It’s not focused on the specific idea-seed from which grew a fully-flowering novel, but rather (uh-oh, I’ve fallen into a metaphor and I can’t get out!) one that’s focused on the idea-garden as a whole: How do you turn your brain into fertile ground for ideas, and how do you get those ideas to take root and grow?
I firmly believe part of being a writer is genetic, and there’s not much you can do about that. Some people are simply born with brains that are predisposed to the creation of fictional tales. Many authors have told me they started telling stories almost as soon as they could talk.
That’s all very well and good if you are one of those people, but not everyone who becomes a writer was a teller of tales in toddlerhood. You can still develop a successful idea-garden even if you don’t have a creative green thumb, and it starts with fertilizer.
You can fertilize your idea-garden with the words of the writers who came before you, layering it with a rich compost of descriptions and dialogue, characters and comedy, action and adversity, pathos and puns…and did I mention alliteration?
All writers struggle with the same challenge: to craft what seem to be real human beings, real places, and real situations using nothing more than (in English) twenty-six abstract symbols. And when you see how well other writers meet that challenge, it both inspires you to meet the challenge yourself and offers instruction in how to do so.
Through reading, we learn how tales are crafted—and desire to craft our own as effectively as those we have read. Our well-fertilized mind-gardens are then ready for the planting of ideas…and as Field of Dreams tells us in an entirely unrelated context, “If you build it, they will come.”
In this instance, “they” are ideas, not long-dead ballplayers (although the idea of a ghostly voice telling an Iowa farmer to build a ballpark in his cornfield was a doozy). And once they arrive, they will grow if you’ve prepared the ground properly.
However, as any gardener can tell you, the real work comes after the sprouting of seeds. I’ve often said that writing (if I may momentarily replace my metaphor with a simile) is like a muscle you exercise. The more you use it, the stronger and more flexible it becomes.
Creativity can be practiced. In fact, it must be practiced if it is going to be sustained long-term. And you practice it, as a writer, by writing: by taking those little shoots of ideas and nurturing them into full-grown stories.
One author I interviewed, inspired by Ray Bradbury, wrote a short story a week for a year. She drew ideas from the news, from TV shows, from random encounters with strangers, from books, from a million different places. By practicing the generation of ideas, she made the ideas come more readily: she bolstered her creativity.
I’ve worked with a lot of young writers, and sometimes, they have a single burning idea that they’re convinced will make a great book. Sometimes, they’re right. But I’ve also seen writers fail to move beyond that first great idea, worrying it to death in an attempt to make it grow, overwatering, sometimes, or over-pruning—and when that idea fails to flourish, they give up.
To be creative, reliably, book after book, story after story, you must not only work at it, you must be prepared to move on, to let go of previous work and previous ideas. Make the most you can out of an idea, then move on to a new idea.
Back in the garden, as a plant grows, you tend it. Eventually, if all goes well, its flowers brighten your yard or its fruit your table, but then, it’s done. You remember it fondly, but you’re already working toward the next planting.
At the end of the Leonard Bernstein musical version of Candide, the characters, after adventure, tragedy, and farce, sing, “Make Our Garden Grow.” The title could well be the slogan of writers everywhere as they nurture the green shoots of ideas into the flowers and fruits of fiction, day after day after day.