Casing the Ideas Factory

I haven’t written any new posts in over a week now – gasp! – and I’m sure this absence has left a spindly, Tom O’Connell-shaped hole in your hearts. This past week was pretty nuts: I had a fairly dire dental consultation (time to go, full set o’ wisdoms), I passed the Australian Citizenship test without an iota of preparation (the leader of our country is, in fact, the prime minister; not – as was previously believed – Eddie McGuire), and I hoofed it across every street in Melbourne with my visiting mother, whom I hadn’t seen in over eighteen months.

There was also a fair amount of this:

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Unfortunately, all this festivity (and dentistry) left little time for writing. I’ve managed to squeeze in a few hours a day since, but, in a frightening brush with maturity, I decided to prioritise my novel writing – hence no new Art of Almost posts until today!

Today I thought I’d touch briefly on the ethics of drawing inspiration from outside sources. In my experience, most story ideas come from something we see, hear about, or physically live through. Even the ones that seem to articulate from nowhere originate from somewhere in the subconscious (or else they develop by following other, pre-existing trains of thoughts).

With all this in mind, what exactly is the distinction between external inspiration and original thought? And more to the point, why – with my vino-induced Valentine’s hangover – am I willingly exploring what is rightfully a matter for philosophers?

If you’ll allow me to backtrack, I’ll elaborate on the events that led me here. Last week’s time constraints have forced me to concentrate on my current WIP (my, err, novel). Previously, I promised myself not to start any new projects until I’d at least made some significant headway on this project.

Well, as of two days ago, I broke promise and started something new. For the sake of my own sanity, I wanted to bang out something short and fun. (Goddamn, I terrible at being productive.) But when I think about it, this wasn’t exactly a conscious decision. Truth be told, I was courted by inspiration (and what a sexy minx she is!). I’ll explain.

One afternoon, I found myself trawling the official forum of a certain off-the-air TV show, and chanced upon something that resonated with me. It was a synopsis for an episode I hadn’t seen (frankly, I don’t wish to see it; I’d rather my interpretation of this idea be entirely my own). I won’t go into which show it was, or divulge the nature of the idea, but this sort of thing – this getting excited about an idea – doesn’t happen to me often.

So, without over-thinking it, I put down 1,200 words of a short story using this television episode as inspiration. After the initial feelings of woo! yeah! I wrote something new and it doesn’t suck! subsided, I started to think about what I’d done.

For perhaps the first time ever, I’d consciously run with an idea that wasn’t wholly my own. I felt – and continue to feel – a bit funny about this. I brought it up with my writing buddy/mentor/the Obi Wan to my Luke Skywalker. He asked whether the elements I’m borrowing – or, more accurately, drawing inspiration from – are unique to this particular show. I thought about it, and … no, they aren’t. Not really. The themes in my story are universal, particularly in today’s storytelling climate (oh, look how coy I’m being!); there’s nothing all that distinct, or iconic, about the idea, nothing that would link it to its original source material. Also – and perhaps this is just my effort to rationalise what I’ve done – the direction I’m taking the story is vastly different to where the show went with it.

To further accentuate his point, this friend cited a few pieces he’d written of the years, stories that had taken inspiration from other books, films or television shows. None of these were derivative in the least; in fact, what he’d done in the past was not all that dissimilar from what I’m doing now. And so, after a modest amount of private anguish, I’ve decided not to feel guilty about this. What I’ve written is still a remarkable personal achievement; the physical work is mine, the character and narrative progression is mine, and I’ve no doubt the conclusion will be a hundred percent mine.

It’s been said that all ideas, all original thoughts, are tapped (though I do hate trite assessments like that). We have entire marketing genres that, by nature, deliver to a reader’s expectations. They feature predetermined scenarios, developments and character templates; there are even tropes, physical hallmarks, which make a story specific to a genre (i.e. dwarves in fantasy, or a spaceship in sci-fi).

Even the ideas for non-genre stories (that is literary or experimental stories; stories that may defy simple classification) come to the writer via some kind of personal experience. In that sense, writers are kind of like scribes capturing pre-existing stories (the musician, John Frusciante, considers all music an ever-present phenomena – something humans ‘channel’, not create). I don’t know about all that, but it’s certainly interesting to think about.

So, where – and this is the most maligned question any creative person can be asked – do your ideas come from? Have you ever borrowed, or been inspired, by a book, film or television show? (Just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about fan-fiction.) If so, how did it make you feel? Were you proud of what you’d written? Or did you feel guilty?

Until next time… Happy Day After Valentine’s Day, idea thieves!

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One thought on “Casing the Ideas Factory

  1. My ideas most commonly come from wondering on strangers I see on the train/street, but occasionally I actually have dreams about characters and settings that end up becoming the foundations for entire stories.

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