The Dreaded Question

question mark block

I’m about to show you my weakness.

Please try not to exploit it, if you can help yourself.  You see, it’s kind of a big deal.  I like doing what I do, and I really want to keep doing it.  But this one weakness has the power to stop me—and any writer—in my tracks.  And it’s deceptively simple, too; you’ll find it hard to resist, once you know what it is.  Go easy on me!

It’s…it’s…a question.  THE question.  The Dreaded Question.  This question is the one that every writer must face eventually—the dragon we must slay—the end boss of this video game.  It’s…wait a second while I work up my courage here…okay.  I can do this.  The question is:

“Where do you get your ideas?”

I feel so vulnerable now!  Asking the question is like breaking through the armor.  It’s like exposing the soft tissue inside, letting the world see—and maybe attack—the real me.  It’s kind of awkward, is what I’m saying.

Like this, but with words instead of swords

There’s no defense against the question.  It can be anticipated, but not denied.  Oh, some of us try to deflect it, with a mumbled “I don’t really know”, but we know the truth—you really want to know, and you won’t let it rest until you do!

I understand, my friends, I really do.  To someone who is a reader and not a writer—and believe me, I mean no insult; readers are the ones with the power here, because without you, why would I bother writing?—to a reader, the writing process must seem a little like magic.  A perfectly mundane person, living a perfectly mundane life, and coming up with stories that are anything but perfectly mundane (or so we hope!)—of course it seems like magic!  So why would the question intimidate us?

The answer is that every magician is afraid of being the Wizard of Oz.  Deep down, we all believe that we’re really the little humbug behind the curtain, not the sorcerer we want to be.  All magic is ultimately sleight-of-hand; all the tricks are just that—tricks.  And we feel embarrassed by that.

It embarrasses me to admit that my ideas don’t come from some mystical source.  I don’t go into the desert and meditate for a month, seeking visions, and then come back with three hundred pages in my head.  I don’t seek the fountain of youth ideas, and I don’t go on pilgrimages.  My ideas come from much simpler sources:  You.  The people around me.  The world we live in.

photo from

Believe it or not, I wrote the phrase “fountain of ideas” BEFORE finding this weirdly appropriate picture. Also, Brenda Ueland, whoever you are…I’m gonna have to disagree with you on this one.

My current novel, The Last Shot, was inspired by several things.  I drew on my own work history—jail and prison and mental health and, yes, even writing—to create the main character.  I pulled the secondary protagonists from people that are close to me, and their situations.  I pulled my villains from a friend’s terrible experience with a stalker (with her permission, of course).  I found a place in it for some of my experiences in dealing with my ex-wife’s mental illness.  My children—fulfilling a promise I made them—make a cameo.  I pulled scenes from things that went on around me while I was writing it; from places I have visited; from conversations with friends and family.  I drew inspiration from books I’ve read and movies and television shows that I’ve watched.  Headlines in the news influenced my portrayal of events.  In short, I drew from every conceivable source.

Spelling it out that way, you may be tempted to say, “but what’s so bad about that?”  And you’re both right and wrong.  Those are perfectly honorable sources.  They are also very mundane, and that’s where the embarrassment comes in.  You see, we want it to be magical just as much as you do.  We want to be able to say there is a sacred, mystical source for our stories.  We love the mystique, the aura.  The truth is much less glamorous than that.  We don’t want to admit that a lot of it is chance—the encounters we have, the things we see and hear—and that the rest is just simply living life and seeing what shakes out of it.  But that is the truth.

So, next time you talk to a writer, go easy.  Ask the question if you must—I would—but when you get the inevitable wince, the nervous chuckle, the loosening of the collar, don’t flinch.  And don’t, above all, be offended at the answer!  We’re human too.    We want you to know what it’s like, but we also want you to understand when the answer isn’t what you expect.  After all, the guy behind the curtain may be a humbug…but he wants to be the wizard.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.


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