Where Writers Find Ideas

How do writers find our material? This is different than asking where we get our material. Where is a matter of interest, walk of life, or even working a beat – politics, sports, theology, current events. How is a question of observation, interest, and connection.

Writers find their material everywhere. At least good ones do.

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Anne LaMott describes in her book Bird by Bird how she carries note cards around with her to record . . . stuff. She records phrases and scenes and ideas. She jots down a few words or a quote or an observation so that she has record of something that sparked. That’s how writers find their material – something sparks.

But even that doesn’t really answer the question because then it becomes “well, how does something spark?” The answer to that lies somewhere between “you just have what it takes” and “you work your tail off to make it happen.”

Good writers are good thinkers and good thinkers are good noticers. They see things others miss or they see the same things in different ways. Is noticing a natural talent or a nurtured ability? Yes it is!

If you find yourself drawn to write it’s likely something drew you – something you just have to say, the sense that you see things others miss. It’s certainly not the money and fame. (If it is, get into the “platform” business. You can repackage and regurgitate others’ ideas ad nauseam, take credit for them, and make some decent coin.) That sense is likely an indication that you are a noticer, one who see what others don’t. Either that or it’s an indication of a ravenous ego. Time will tell.

So then the question turns to what you will do with that ability. Anne Lamott doesn’t need my affirmation, but I think her method is spot on. You soak up life around you. You jot it down in a notebook or on your phone or on a napkin. Then you see what connections your brain makes when you look at it. Sometimes the connections aren’t there, and that’s when you take a leap. Take an idea, run with it, and jump. Sometimes you land on a connection. Sometimes you fall flat. That’s ok because every fall is a lesson for next time and so is every connection.

Noticing and connecting is a mental muscular function. Just like there are natural athletes there are natural writers, so some people will simply be better at this than others. But natural or not, it takes consistent training to build that muscle. Look everywhere. Watch strangers walk by and imagine their stories. Listen to conversations at bars and coffee shops and see what they tell you. (Eavesdropping is another tool in a writer’s tool box.) Listen for a phrase that strikes you as beautiful or stupid or profound. Turn up the radio and listen to DJs and news and music. Watch children play and adults flirt. It all has the potential to spark something, but unless you write it down it will be gone by the time you sit down at your computer.

The good news is that there is no limit or lane for a writer. The bad news is that there is no limit or lane for a writer. Our subjects surround us all the time. All we need to do is pay attention, figure what matters out of what we saw, and communicate it in a way that matters to people who missed it the first time. No big deal, right?