Where do writers get their ideas?

I heard Neil Gaiman speak a few years ago. One of the more amusing anecdotes that came out of that event was Gaiman’s description of his work on Coraline.  I’ll have to paraphrase, because I’m drawing this from memory – “Whatever you do, if you come up with an  idea like buttons for eyes, write down where it came from.”   The gist of his message was that he had absolutely no idea where the concept of buttons for eyes came from. He simply couldn’t remember.

In the writer’s notes at the back of V for Vendetta, Alan Moore admits the same thing:

There’s one at every convention…always one nervous and naive young novice who, during a lull in the question-and-answers session will raise one fluttering hand aloft and enquire, tremulously, “Where do you get your ideas from?”  And do you know what we do? We sneer. We lampoon and ridicule the snivelling little oaf before his peers…. We imply that even to have voiced such a question places him irrevocably in the same intellectual category as the common pencil-sharpener…. No, I know it isn’t nice. But all the same, it’s something that we have to do.

The reason why we have to do it is pretty straightforward.  Firstly, in the dismal and confused sludge of opinion and half-truth that make up all artistic theory and criticism, it is the only question worth asking.  Secondly, we don’t know the answer and we’re scared somebody will find that out.

Very few authors will tell you where they get their ideas, because very few authors know where they get their ideas.

I’m intensely analytical. I’m also an introvert, so I turn a vast amount of that analysis toward the clockwork tickings inside my own brain. Most of  the time, I know where I got my ideas from. Or at the very least, I can piece it together.

Pile of sketchbooks, notebooks and journals with laptop in the background

My ideas come from all over the place. They come from random observations during my commute, from something a friend has posted on Facebook, from hearing about some strange new disease.  My ideas come from dreams, and from nightmares. They come from daydreams, and the “what if” questions I ask myself.

Many of my ideas are composted concepts. Ideas that I’ve written about in the past. I have NaNoWriMo novels that have been permanently shelved. But that doesn’t mean that all of the ideas inside them have to die.

I believe it was Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones who talking me about composting ideas. Creating giant compost piles of metaphors and images. Themes and twists.

“It takes a while for our experience to sift through our consciousness. for instance, it is hard to write about being in love in the midst of a mad love affair.  We have no perspective.”

She writes about taking shallow thoughts and experiences, sensory memories, and letting them decompose a little, letting ourselves dip the spade a little deeper into our authentic selves, into experience.

I take a lot of notes.

I compost, recycle, reuse a lot of ideas. I know that I need to work on putting my experience into words, not only for practice, but to create compost.

I took this very posed photograph of a sketchbook, a few journals, the back of my laptop to represent the compost heap.

My big ideas very rarely come to me full-blown like lightening strikes.  My writing ideas come to me in single phrases, a metaphor here, an observation there.  The closest I can come to the idea is a sticky-note. They are tiny ideas that stick – and stay- where I find them.

When I took this photo, I realized how phony it was. I noticed how posed it looked, how silly. So I took another shot. I took a photo of my journals. My real journals. Yes, they are numbered. Yes, they are shelved in order.

Bookshelf of journals


You’ll notice that they get smaller and smaller in size over time. This shift happened when I moved from a briefcase to a backpack, from a backpack to a messenger bag, from a messenger bag to a small purse.  The tiny blue one in the posed photo is the journal I took with me hiking this summer.  It has Rummy game scores, book lists, and observations from the trail.  It is tucked at the very end beside an orange moleskin journal from another backpacking trip.

The shelf above this one includes no fewer than ten blank journals at any given time. They vary in range, style and mood. Some are fancy leather-bound gifts. Others are bargain books I saw on clearance racks. They all comfort me with their openness, their availability. They are waiting for observations, emotions, experiences, and ideas.


When I held a party earlier this year, a dear friend of mine asked me whether I was worried about putting these things out where people could find them.  He asked me whether it bothered me if someone were to crack one open and skim a few pages.   I laughed.

“The chances of someone running across something deep and personal are relatively slim,” I explained. Though I do use my journals as my therapy, and I do write a whole lot of deep, personal stuff in them, that’s not the bulk of the contents. “It’s mostly banal. Daily descriptions of the sunrise. Observations of people’s hairdos and perfume on the train.” I told him.

In truth, what those journals represent is my gigantic compost pile of ideas.

I’ve decided that I’m going to share those little ideas – those little sticky-notes of ideas that add up to become something bigger and crazier than anyone imagined.  I’m going to try to post these daily.  I hope you’re interested in joining me on this journey!


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