“When I have an idea, I turn down the flame, as if it were a little alcohol stove, as low as it will go. Then it explodes and that is my idea.”
– Ernest Hemingway
This quote describes my idea process fairly well. Many of my ideas come from that liminal state of mind between sleep and wakefulness. This can get frustrating, because who remembers to grab a pencil and paper when half-asleep? I’ve trained myself, thankfully, to keep a pad of paper within flailing distance of my bed.
But that’s the end result of an involved idea process. How do ideas begin? I’m a people-watcher, for one. I often will sit in a crowded place with my headphones on, and my music turned down really low so I can hear the conversations around me. This isn’t to spy on people, but rather to grab impressions.
Maybe Lord Hartwell walks like that man, and scratches the back of his head like that little boy. Maybe Mary twitches her nose to the side like that woman when she smells something she doesn’t like. Mr Spencer sneezes like that old man over there, despite his only being 26 years old.
I take these impressions, along with snippets of stories I hear and read throughout the day, and do…nothing. I think about them for a while, try to decide why I find them interesting, and then I continue with my day. As a graduate student, I have a lot to do, so it’s almost never a problem to let my ideas stew.
A couple of days later, my idea will explode like Hemingway’s stove, and I’ll scramble for pen and paper. I’ll write furiously, scratching out words that don’t work because it takes too much time to erase. I’ll feel triumphant if I catch everything in the first attempt, and then I’ll fall asleep with a smile on my face.
The next morning, I’ll wake and examine what I wrote. Sometimes, I’m pleased with it, and decide it will definitely go in the new draft. Sometimes, it’s complete trash, but I tuck it into my journal anyway, because it’s a piece of writing and all writing counts, whether it’s trash or not. Practice makes perfect, right?
How do your ideas come to you? Do they explode into being, or do they sneak in unawares?