Where Do Ideas Come From?

I get ideas at the most inconvenient times. An idea rarely shows up when I’m sitting in front of my computer, freshly caffeinated, text editor at the ready, with enough free time on my hands to flesh out the idea, and save it for later.

Instead, ideas sneak up on me when I’m least prepared. When I’m in the shower. As I’m falling asleep. When I’m stuck at a light that just turned green, and I’ve already tooted Scooty Puff Junior’s horn twice to persuade the guy in front of me to stop texting and start driving.

That’s when my ideas arrive. When I’m half-dressed and not expecting company. But where do they come from? Every writer has to answer this question, if they stick around long enough. If they write anything people want to read, people want to know where those ideas come from.

An easy answer is “I write the kinds of stories I want to read,” but I don’t know if that’s true. It sounds good. It sounds writerly. It sounds magnanimous. But I’m not magnanimous. Especially when it comes to writing. Writing is a selfish act, and if you’re worth a damn, you’re writing for yourself first.

On top of that, I don’t believe I’m fully in control of what I’m writing, despite how carefully I plan, despite my tendency toward Architecture, rather than Gardening. I’m a builder, but I don’t always know what I’m building, and I don’t really know where my ideas come from. I think in pictures, not in words or phrases, and when an idea shows up, it can take many forms. Sometimes it’s like watching a scene from a movie.

Last week I was in that strange place between sleeping and waking, when I saw a woman driving down a lonely stretch of highway, late at night. I knew she was on her way home, and I knew this was a trip she made several times a week, and had been making for several years.

The woman drove past a grove of trees, just like she did several times a week. A small stand of old trees, about 30 yards back from the highway. Unremarkable, but it caught her eye every time she drove past. She held her breath every time she crested the hill just before the grove came into view. As she drove past the grove, her head turned until the muscles in her neck ached. Watching the trees until they passed from her view. She did this without thinking, week after week, year after year.

Until she stopped the night I was watching. She crested the hill, holding her breath, and pulled her car to the side of the road. She turned off the engine, shut off the lights, and got out. She didn’t take her keys, and she didn’t lock the door. She crossed the highway without checking for traffic, and entered the grove.

Watching this unfold was something close to dreaming. I knew she had to go into the grove, but I didn’t know what she’ll find inside, and I didn’t know what would happen when she found it. I still don’t know, but I’ve saved enough to turn into a story so I can find out.

Half awake, I fumbled for my phone on the nightstand, opened my voice memo app, and mumbled as much as I could remember. As much as I could still see. Everything this late night arrival brought with it.

Sometimes an idea is just a word, or a phrase. A phrase that crossed my mind a few days ago, as I was picking up milk and Pop Tarts from the grocery story:

“He strode victorious into the Parthenon, hoofbeats thunderous, each step echoing across those polished marble floors.”

What is this? Is this the opening line of a story? It sure sounds like one. But that’s all I got. I turned the words over and over in my mind as the cashier rang me up, and sent myself an email as soon as I sat down in my car. My mind is wonderful, but I don’t trust it. Memory is a slippery thing.

Ideas come wearing many faces. Usually it’s a picture, or a stream of pictures, or something like a scene from a movie. Sometimes it’s just a word, or a sentence or two, or someone’s name. Once in a while, it’s a smell, or a sound. Something will spark a memory, and that memory will fragment and branch off into another kind of memory. A recollection of something that hasn’t happened yet. An idea for a story.

I like to think there’s a part of my brain that never stops working. Some busy piece of my mind, constantly churning out ideas, sending them up for consideration when they’re ready. My Underbrain. It’s the part of me that wants to be a writer, that’s always wanted to be a writer, and now that I’m writing every day, it’s busier than ever.

I think in images, and when I think of where my ideas come from, I imagine the fissure between the lobes of my brain dark and crackling with electricity, sending up another idea from Somewhere Else. Another note from the Underbrain. Another idea.

I'm Tyler, and I blog about marketing, programming, writing, and things I'm working on.


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