Where do you get your ideas?
“In the mythic tradition, both artists and shamans walk perilously close to the realm of madness; indeed, in some cases, their gifts specifically come from journeying into madness, or Faerie, or the Realm of the Gods and then back again.” – Terri Windling, in her June 29th blog post On Artistic Inspiration
My short answers to the question “Where do you get your ideas?” are “I have no idea” and “They come out of nowhere.”
A year ago, my imagination drew me back to the mountains of Montana and the streets of Decatur, Illinois, to write my heroine’s journey novel Sarabande. While focusing on the Northwest and the Midwest in the spring of 2011, I never could have guessed that I’d be focusing on the rivers and swamps of the Florida Panhandle during the spring and summer of 2012.
In his recent book Riting Myth Mythic Writing, Dennis Patrick Slattery suggests that the fiction we’re attracted to, perhaps as both readers and writers, often has a “like attracts like” association with our deepest needs as well as our own personal myths. My intuition lures me more to Terri Windling’s view—and that of many other writers of fantasy and folktale—than to a purely psychological analysis of the source of my ideas for short stories and novels.
There was a time many years ago when I strongly considered psychology over writing as a career path and, like Slattery, I would have looked for the roads Carl Jung walked down and then blazed my own trails into faerie, madness and/or the unconscious from there with an analytical psychology perspective. I chose story over teaching and therapy. Most of the time, I think I chose well.
Maybe I Should Just Say That Ideas Pop Into My Head
As far as I can tell, my ideas come from my muse and/or my unconscious. Saying that tends to chase away people who ask the “where do you get your ideas?” question during interviews or book signings.
I do tell people that I don’t concoct plots or write outlines because when a story idea pops into my head, I don’t know where it will lead. Now, I’m fully aware that popular psychologists used to ask some years ago: “If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?”
When I go to a physical place for a specific purpose, I use a map. But a story is different. It unfolds. As Annie Dillard stalks spirit, I stalk stories. Rushing in, scares them away like deer or cats. Trying to create a map too soon stifles the ideas and pretty much scuttles the story. I’m sure I write about what I need to write about, and I know I’ve gotten where I’m going when the story feels right and complete. To others, this looks like madness or faerie enchantment. I’m sure it is.
Like venturing into a faerie ring, there’s always a danger that sooner or later a writer will follow a story and never come back. I fight against that happening even though there are times when I see it as a blessing.
This past week, I’ve been writing about a blackwater Florida river because, quite frankly, my muse whispered the words “Sweetbay Magnolia” to me and I started following the flower’s lemony scene to see where it led. It led me back to the place where I grew up. Dr. Slattery would have plenty to say about that, and I’m sure I would agree. But for now, I’m enjoying the world of turkey oaks and yaupon holly because, perhaps, I miss it and/or because I want to see what happens when Emily Walters and her dad drive down to St. Marks, Florida on a foggy night.