As writers–aspiring writers, we chide ourselves–we often wonder where writers we admire get their ideas from. We look at the book we hold in front of us, look at the colors and the typography, look at the photograph of the author at the back, run our fingers on the thick paper of a color the author chose with care, and wonder: where did the author start? where did the idea come from? what does getting an idea feel like? how will I know when I get an idea for a book?
Sometimes ideas feel BIG, they make their way into us in a way that we can’t help but notice, shaking us to the core. Elizabeth Gilbert describes how she feels when she chances upon such as idea (or, as she would say it, how it feels like when the idea finds HER) in her beautiful book on creativity, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.
When he told me this story–especially the part about the jungle swallowing up the machines–chills ran up my arms. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up for an instant, and I felt a little sick, a little dizzy. I felt like I was falling in love, or had just heard alarming news, or was looking over a precipice at something beautiful and mesmerizing, but dangerous.
I’d experienced these symptoms before, so I knew immediately what was going on. Such an intense emotional and physiological reaction doesn’t strike me often, but it happens enough (and is consistent enough with symptoms reported by people all over the world, all throughout history) that I believe I can confidently call it by its name: inspiration.
While the birth of a book can sometimes start with Big Ideas finding us, it is just as likely to start with something smaller, a little feeling, a little curiosity that makes us go Hmmm – something that we’re more likely to miss. Those of us who have trained ourselves to listen to the little voice inside us know that we may be on to something (or we may not, but that’s fine, too!).
Here’s how Gretchen Rubin describes getting the idea for her wonderful, life improving book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives.
As a writer, my great interest is human nature, and in particular, the subject of happiness. A few years ago, I noticed a pattern: when people told me about a “before and after” change they’d made that boosted their happiness, they often pointed to the formation of a crucial habit. And when they were unhappy about a change they’d failed to make, that too often related to a habit.
Then one day, when I was having lunch with an old friend, she said something that turned my casual interest in habits into a full-time preoccupation.
After we’d looked at our menus, she remarked, “I want to get myself in the habit of exercise, but I can’t, and it really bothers me.” Then in a brief observation that would absorb me for a long time to come, she added, “The weird thing is that in high school, I was on the track team, and I never missed track practice, but I can’t go running now. Why?”
“Why?” I echoed, as I mentally flipped through my index cards of happiness research to find some relevant insight or useful observation. Nothing.
Our conversation shifted to other topics, but as the days passed, I couldn’t get this exchange out of my mind. Same person, same activity, different habit. Why? Why had she been able to exercise faithfully in the past, but not now? How might she start again? Her question buzzed in my head with the special energy that tells me I’ve stumbled onto something important.
Finally, I connected that conversation with what I’d noticed about people’s accounts of their before-and-after transformations, and it struck me: To understand how people are able to change, I must understand habits. I felt the sense of joyous anticipation and relief that I feel every time I get the idea for my next book. It was obvious! Habits.
Elizabeth Gilbert describes how The Signature of All Things grew into a living and breathing book when she followed a little curiosity she felt, a little voice that urged her to garden.
…I discovered that I did not want to merely cultivate these plants; I also wanted to know stuff about them. Specifically, I wanted to know where they had come from.
Those heirloom irises that ornamented my yard, for instance– what was their origin? I did exactly one minute of research on the Internet and learned that my irises were not indigenous to New Jersey; they had in fact originated in Syria.
That was kind of cool to discover.
Then I did some research. The lilacs that grew around my property were apparently descendents of similar bushes that had once bloomed in Turkey. My tulips also originated in Turkey–though there’d been a lot of interfering Dutchmen, it turned out, between these original wild Turkisk tulips and my domesticated, fancy varieties. My dogwood was local. My forsythia wasn’t, though; that came from Japan. My wisteria was also rather far from home; an English sea captain had brought the stuff over to Europe from China, and then the British settlers had brought it to the New World–and rather recently, actually.
I started running background checks on every single plant in my garden. I took notes on what I was learning. My curiosity grew. What intrigued me, was not the garden itself, but the botanical history behind it–a wild and little-known tale of trade and adventure and global intrigue.
That could be a book, right?
I kept following the trail of curiosity. I elected to trust in my fascination. I elected to believe that I was interested in all this botanical trivia for a good reason. Accordingly, portents and coincidences began to appear before me, all related to this newfound interest in botanical history…
The little voice and the BIG voice are both speaking with us – we just need to listen.
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