Shelley Widhalm

Where do you find ideas for stories and poems?

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing on May 25, 2014 at 11:00 am

Like many writers, I get ideas for stories and poems at very inconvenient times.

Ideas come to me when I’m at the gym or out walking, running or doing something where I’m not actively thinking. I carry paper and pen wherever I go, but what about those inconvenient places, like the shower or in bed—because if you’re like me, there’s no getting up after the lights go off.

The obvious solution is getting more notebooks to put in more places: I have mine in my purse, my workbag, my desk, the living room, the kitchen, the car and wherever else I go. Plus, there’s plenty of napkins, paper scraps and that Memo function on my smart phone in case I don’t have ready access to paper.

Despite all my paper hot spots, the problem I encounter is the (mistaken?) belief that I will remember my idea, the idea isn’t that interesting and worth writing down, or the idea is one I’ve had before and, of course, I’ll recall later on.

But, as experience shows, this approach doesn’t work. I lose the idea and get mad at myself for being too lazy to take one or two minutes to write it down. The idea gets lost in a story cloud, that mental space where imagination can be accessed but not in precise words. It takes pen, pencil or a keyboard to discover the details of the idea.

Finding, capturing and writing down an idea starts with recognition: this thought isn’t mind filler but something that can become a story. There’s enough of a plot or setting to work with, or there’s an interesting character. It could be a snippet of a dialog. The way someone looks or talks. How the air feels or the sunset looks. It could be the inside of a bar, a restaurant, a mall.

There are lists of inspirations for getting story ideas, but the story cloud is inspiration that comes without trying. It is part of the mental processing of the interior and exterior environment.

For instance, I wanted to go to a fancy art show but didn’t have an expensive ticket or my reporter’s notebook, so I wasn’t “invited.” Instead, I was hanging out with my boyfriend and mind-created a couple arguing the merits of art show window shopping or staying home and watching a movie like they do every Saturday night. This idea went into my purse notebook before I could say, “There’s not enough tension.”

Making excuses for not jotting down an idea causes it to be lost or to change, even if slightly, to become something different the next time it comes to you. It’s the process of writing the ideas down that gives them form and shape, so that next time you think about the same thing, it’s already there “captured.” It’s the beginning of the writing process.

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  1. I’ve been telling myself it’s a discipline to write down those ideas. Just do it, even if you’re unsure. Write it down. Hopefully it will become a natural instinct.

    • It does take discipline. I sometimes think that my idea is such an obvious idea, I’ll never forget it, but often I do forget about it entirely when I get tied up with other stuff.

  2. Excellent post, Shelley! You’re right about the need to write down every idea. I use notecards now because they’re inexpensive, easy to keep everywhere, and easy to organize into categories. Thanks for the inspiration!

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