University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Professor Emeritus, Poet Laureate of North Carolina Emeritus
Sometimes a young writer will say to me, “I have an idea for a story,” and then I never know whether to tender congratulations or condolences. Writers who have struggled in the craft for a longish period are often ambivalent about story “ideas.” Yet they are still often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?”
Some profess to be irritated by the query and reply, “Oh, I don’t know—from just about everywhere.” The response is not intended to be unmannerly, and it possibly only betrays the fears that arise when someone is asked about the sources of his or her art. One does not desire to jinx the process, saying, for example, “I get on the city bus at Summit Avenue and 3rd Street and ride to the 400 block of Elm Street and there is always something to meet my eye and suggest the outlines of a story.” A tacit superstition is that if you talk about it, it won’t happen again and you may ride the bus from Summit Avenue to Mozambique and draw only a very expensive blank.
So the question, genuine or not on the part of the asker, is sometimes brushed aside.
It is rather refreshing to learn that someone thinks I have had ideas, but I, too, reply casually most of the time—not so much from fear, and certainly not from irritation—but because the subject is complex and it is hard to call forth a handy answer. Usually I say, “Oh, anything may suggest an idea: an image, a smell, a memory, a book or scrap of music, an animal, a confusion, a misunderstanding, a lawsuit, a blackmail threat, a brain trauma—almost anything.”
This is the truth, but it is not helpful.
A question I might tender in reply would be: “Why do you want to know?”
Let us suppose, for the sake of a narrative, that the person who asks where ideas come from has considered that she might like to try her hand at fiction sometime when she is not so dreadfully busy as she always seems to be and would like to know which of her thoughts or impressions or impulses contain enough substance to make the considerable effort of composition [End Page 25] worthwhile. If that is the case, then her question is not really about where ideas come from but about how one can recognize which of them are promising as fictional prospects.
She already comprehends that not all conceptions are worth pursing, and she desires the selection process to be efficient. And I do not have the heart to tell her that, selecting as wisely as she may, she will still try out some duds, suggestions that will not work for her. The shadowy forest of fiction writing presents many a tempting trail; the outsets are fresh and flower-bordered, but many, if not most, lead to dead ends in brambly thickets.
Yet let us not discourage the hopeful talents of an earnest seeker. I will try to answer the question about ideas. I shall not pretend to answer with perfect accuracy, for the process of tracing the association of ideas is not as orderly as that strong philosopher John Locke seems to indicate.
Some years ago I was chatting with an accomplished novelist and short-story writer, Mr. R. V. Cassill. Verlin has passed from us now, but he was a nifty raconteur and was able to put forth all sorts of wise hints about the craft of composition. When we chanced upon the topic of story ideas, Verlin said that he liked, once he came upon a viable notion, to turn it over and around in his mind. “Like a large jewel,” he said. “I can see what different lights and shades each different facet of the idea displays.”
I thought his analogy was just spiffy. Upon the instant, I imagined myself with the idea for a story in my hands, as solid as a stone. I turned it this way and that and splendid colors rayed out from...