Probably the question readers (young and old) most often ask me is “Where do you get your ideas?”
I’ve been asked that question for more than fifty years.
The answer is multifaceted:
To begin with, I grew up in a house of books.
I had great grandparents who were writers. One of my grandmothers was. My parents had wanted to be writers.
There is a family story that when I was about five years old I rushed into the room where my mother was, and excitedly announced “I can read! I can read!”
Whether that was true or not is quite another matter. (I doubt it) What it does tell me is that even at that age I knew that reading was important.
My mother read to me and my siblings every bedtime. Also, my mother, who was extremely interested in children’s books, supplied us (as I now know) with many of the best picture books of the day. I can recall many of them by titles and recalled images.
Each Friday we were taken to the nearby public library and encouraged to pick the books that interested us. I have no memory of ever being told “You can’t borrow that book.”
Every birthday, every Christmas I received a gift of a book and was encouraged to have my own library.
I lived in a neighborhood that had bookstores, including a used bookstore, where, even as a kid, I was welcome to browse in the dusty, dim recess of the store where I could (and did) buy books for twenty-five cents. I acquired and read the animal stories of Thornton W. Burgess and the Freddy the Pig series, the Oz books, so-called boys’ books, (Tom Swift, Hardy Boys) The Wind in the Willows, and Treasure Island. (Curiously, I did not read Winnie the Pooh.)
Storytelling was important in my family. Stories were encouraged. At family gatherings, my grandfather, Charlie, was always called upon to tell a story. I realize now that he was expected to do so and must have prepared. Because no sooner was he asked, he provided one. And everyone in the room gave him their undivided attention.
I grew up in the 1940s. This is to say I did not watch television but listened to the radio, an avid daily addiction. If you listen to recordings of those programs you will discover that they were narrated stories, with dialogue.
I went to a tiny private high school which put great emphasis on reading and writing. A diary I kept during my senior year has long lists of books (not school requirements) which reveals that I was reading broadly, but well … My favorite line in the book is, “Read Plato. Not bad.”
It’s hardly a coincidence that my twin sister is also a writer.
What is my point in all this accounting? Narrative was a fundamental part of my life from an exceedingly early age. The written word is the way I learned to think.
All of this is to say that when I engage with the world, I experience it as crowded with narratives.
I don’t get ideas. I pick the ones I want to write about.
What I have learned is that when people ask that question, Where do you get ideas? It tells me they don’t have many story ideas of their own.
Want to get some?
Read. Read. Read.