There Is No Muse: Where Writers Really Get Their Ideas

Creative writers dread the question, “Where did you get your idea?” I was asked this question recently and answered it as honestly as I could. But in fact, I’m not sure the question has an answer. Ideas come from everywhere and nowhere. They come from our imagination, from the whispers of forgotten memories, from our own experiences, from our friends’ experiences, from books and songs and movies. Writers draw their stories from the amalgam of their lives.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve told myself stories. Author J.D. Rhoades says it’s like having a movie playing continuously on the inside of your forehead. I can’t understand having a brain that doesn’t work that way. So I don’t quite understand what people want to know when they ask where I get my ideas. I’m torn between giving a simple, concrete answer or a more theoretical one that reveals the artistic process.

In the mind of a creative writer, ideas are like a throng of brokers on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange screaming for attention. Novelists don’t write because they get ideas—they write because they need to get rid of ideas. They write because an idea is burning a hole in their skull, and it won’t stop until they let it out. And if you’ve never had that experience, then my telling you in a simple, concrete way where I got my idea won’t get you any closer to understanding where stories come from.

But do people who ask that question really want to know where stories come from? I don’t think so. I think they want a simple answer so they can nod and think they understand a process so mysterious that no one can ever understand it. They want an answer that gives the illusion that the artistic process is linear and predictable, when in fact it’s dark and chaotic.

This concept that a Muse from on high touches you with her magic, and suddenly an idea bursts forth, is a fallacy. The imaginations of creative writers are constantly churning. At some point, we grab an idea from that fermenting brew and channel our energy into making a full-blown story or novel out of it. One thought builds on another until a world is born. And I think that’s true regardless of the author’s preference for sensing or intuition. Sensing types may be more drawn to stories that come from something concrete—like a saga from their family’s history—while intuitive types might prefer more imaginative stories like fantasy or science fiction. But I don’t think either type suffers from a shortage of ideas. We suffer from a plenitude of them.

Related posts:
Incubating Your Fiction Ideas
Writing and Creativity: Going Outward to Go Inward