Mommy, Where Do Ideas Come From?

The word “idea” sounds all fresh and innocent, doesn’t it? It sounds exciting, refreshing, hopeful.

In truth, ideas are dirty little buggers. Deceptive and manipulative, they worm their way into your mind like microscopic parasites, like prions determined to feed off your neural impulses. They grow like a cancer, taking over your head until you can do nothing but vomit them up in a verbal spew known as the dreaded first draft.

The phrase “original idea” is an oxymoron. No idea is original. Search hard enough, and you’ll find that at some point, somewhere, someone not only already thought of it, they wrote the book.

I’ve been stumbling over this speedbump for the last few months. My current novel seems to be fairly “original” – as in, I haven’t read the exact same premise anywhere – thank the fates. But no less than 3 times now have I come across novels or stories that seem to be based entirely on entries from my Idea Matrix (yes, it’s in Excel, and yes, I’m obsessive-compulsive).

I start to read or listen to these stories, my brain in disbelief, and no little amount of chagrin as I realize I’ve been beaten to the punch. I realize I have this exact same idea written down, waiting for the time or energy for me to give it life. And then I realize that now that I’ve experienced someone else’s version of that same story, I may never be able to write it. I may never be able to separate it from what I know is already out there.

Another revelation is still to come, however: I may have drummed up these ideas not from my own imagination, but from these stories themselves. Seem like a paradox? Not really. I keep a running list of books I want to read and authors I want to check out, and sometimes I don’t get around to reading something for months, or even years. So it’s quite possible that in January I read a book blurb and added it to my list, and then subsequently forgot about it. Then in August my subconscious throws it back to me as a fabulous idea and I write it down in a flurry of excitement…only to be crushed in November when I get around to reading the original book that inspired the idea.

What’s worse is when the realization comes too late, when I’ve written the story, sent it out, based my hopes and dreams on it. Then I get nostalgic, and read a book I remember loving as a kid, and wham, there is my book, only better and bigger. Ouch.

Of course, the stories I write not knowing they’ve been written before are still unique, still original. I am a different person than the other author, with different experiences, different style. It’s why a creative writing class of 20 students can write 20 different stories all based on one assigned premise. Ideas may not be original, but stories usually are.

Whew. Big relief. It takes all the pressure off having that original, wonderful, never-been-seen-before idea…and moves it all onto the story. Hmm.

Oh, well, that’s a post for another day!

2 thoughts on “Mommy, Where Do Ideas Come From?

  1. I’m sure I’ve read something like Drowning Jonathan before.
    I’m also sure I’ve never read anything like Drowning Jonathan before.
    It’s what you do with the idea that matters. So what if the story you had in your head is already out there? I bet by the time you get it down on paper, it turns out to be a different beast altogether anyway.
    You’re right that the same idea is made original because of the approach and the experiences of the writer. For example, the writers that have already written your ideas might employ a character that eats nothing but tomato soup. You, however, might take a different approach…

    By the way, I liked Drowning Jonathan very much.

  2. Glad you liked it!

    I also suffer from fear that I’ve already used up all the good ideas I’m ever going to have. Eek! It’s all just writer-specific neuroses, though.


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