“Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.” –Thoreau

14 June 2011

Where do your ideas come from?

Sometimes when I'm searching for information on the topics pertinent to my work, I stumble upon something which proceeds to become my work. These are rare, precious discoveries. Most of my writing springs from multiple sources-- a massive river formed by smaller tributaries. The tributaries feed into my larger concept over time, filling it out and giving it horsepower. A small tributary might turn a small water wheel, but the larger river will power Hoover's dam.

I can get caught up in the magic of those tributaries. It is so thrilling to discover something pertinent, something that motivates me to make changes, something that explains a character to me. Characters are very much like real people... you don't know everything there is to know upon first meeting them. They don't arrive fully-formed; they have to grow up first. I've been acquainted with some of my characters for years and I still discover things about them that surprise me. And even though these surprises are wonderful, I don't ever want to lose sight of the river's source. Because that is what gives my work focus.

My newest project has a very embarrassing source. I think it best to put it out here now and get it over with, before I become too invested in the story to admit its inception. The new book was conceived after viewing a music video for Beyonce's song "Run the World." I am not in any way anti-Beyonce; I think some of her music is quite good. But the song "Run the World" sucks. It's just not good music. The message of the song is so childish and silly. "Who runs the world? GIRLS!" This is patently untrue. Girls do not run the world. Very old, very white men in tailored suits run the world. They also run the banks, the universities, the hospitals, and the space program.

The music video, on the other hand, is incredibly provocative. The imagery is glamorous and post-apocalyptic, when it doesn't even seem possible to be both. There are lions and hyenas inserted for no apparent reason, except perhaps as examples of animal societies in which females totally overpower the males. Although, in that case, it seems ironic to use a male lion rather than a female lioness. Maybe he serves the same function as Beyonce's randomly inserted male back-up dancers. "Look at this enormous male predator! He is lying at my feet! Girls rock!" Or maybe his mane was just pretty.

Anyway, what really struck me was the way that the women "fought" their male counterparts. They wore skimpy little outfits more suited to the beach than to combat. They undulated and licked their own fingers. They caressed the male soldiers' chests. Also, they had no weapons. The men carried guns and wore flak jackets; the women carried flags and wore makeup. It seemed to imply, at least in my overly analytical brain, that this hypothetical war would be won through sex. Or perhaps the withholding of sex. I find myself incredibly intrigued by the concept.

So, that was the source. That was the mountain top full of melting ice. Since then, many tributaries have worked their way into my work (this article, for example, and this book). Many more will continue to do so as time goes along. As writers, we are honor-bound to acknowledge these sources (if only in our own heads). Is your source a kids' movie? The motel you stayed in last winter? An uncomfortable memory from college? Find your way back there, from time to time. The source is so important. It is rare. It is precious. Don't get lost in the tributaries... you can be side-tracked upstream, and never make it to where you most wish to go.