WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS?
It should be obvious by now to those of you checking in that I don’t often follow the crowd… so I’m tipping you off early I’m going to address this one seriously.
Last weekend, I was on the phone with my five year old nephew, who called to tell me that he could see Mars from the back porch of his house.
“I know you got the idea for your comic book by looking at the moon,” he said, “and I got an idea for one by looking at Mars, so I will make you a comic book.”
I look forward to reading it, I said.
“Do you get other ideas from looking up into the sky?”
I had to admit that sometimes I did, and I had a very heart-warming conversation with him, because, you know, “Where do you get your ideas?” is a very charming question.
From a five year old.
After I got off the phone, it occurred to me that I get an email asking me this very question about five times a day, from people considerably older than five. I usually respond, since I’m kind of a wise-ass, that I get my ideas the same place David Gerrold does, from a guy who’s got a Post Office box in Pennsylvania. You send this anonymous box-holder twenty dollars a month, with a personal check drawn to “Cash” or a money order without the name filled in, and a week later an envelope with no postmark arrives with the ten ideas I get to write about that month.
Sometimes I tell people that when my grandmother on my mother’s side died, she left to me in her will a stained, corrugated cardboard box with oddly out-of-place leather hinges. Said to be brought over by my grandfather, from the old country, it had been willed to her for me upon his death from emphysema in 1970. In it contains, clearly written on tanned lambskin, in a deliberate Gypsy hand, every idea I will ever have. I take one or two out of the box as needed.
Sometimes I tell people there are thirteen old men in a cabin in Vermont who eat venison jerky and tell each other lies and drink fermented maple syrup and who have had all the good ideas safely ensconced in a dry cellar beneath their lodging at the side of an abandoned reservoir somewhere in the Green Mountains. On a skiing trip as a boy, I unwisely left the black diamond trail I’d been following and inadvertently discovered their hoard. Impressing them with my ability to sing all of the county names of Vermont, in order, to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” the old men filled my rucksack with ginger ale and Wheat Thins and drew a map for me to use as a way home. It wasn’t until I was warming myself at the hearth and recounting this tale for my chums that I saw one of the old men had left a slip of paper with a phone number on it. I call it once a year, a week before my birthday, and listen to the prerecorded message that outlines ski conditions at Okemo and Killington. The next day, no matter where I am, I get a FedEx package stuffed with venison jerky and fermented maple syrup and a Mac-formatted CD-ROM, filled with my ideas for the year.
Sometimes I just tell them I have a good imagination.
But after being so arch and witty and impressed with my own droll cleverness, the thought occurred that maybe if I answered this question seriously for once, I could just point all these well-intentioned folks to this column, and they’d have THE ANSWER and I’d be able to streamline my correspondence a little.
So, here you go:
I get my ideas from the same place everyone else does: the grey matter up in my head past my snout and between my ears.
But that’s a little wry, too, because what people mean when they ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” is not really “where” but more of a “how.”
As in, “How do you get something useful out of the crazy shit you come up with?”
While a harder question to answer, it’s not really arcane. I always try to go for useful surprise. Effective shock. Utilitarian gotcha. What my old college roommate, the improbably-named Rob Lavender, used to call “Oh… right.”
That which, when you see it, makes you think, upon reflection, that it’s an obvious solution. More of a “Of course; what else would you do?” kinda thing.
This may not work for you, but it works for me. While some of your bigger comic book companies go for The Cult of Inertia, counting on an increasingly dwindling audience to continue buying their stuff because they always have, and some of your other comic book companies depend on the Cult of Hipster Opinion, banking on the fact that there’s always going to be a segment of entertainment consumers who enjoy something just because no one else does…
…personally, I try to hit the Cult of Innovation.
Basically, I brainstorm.
And not the sort of brainstorming everyone thinks they already do… the sort of prevalent New Age foppery where management teams in earnest meeting rooms in the company headquarters call an all-hands meeting and invite everyone to stare at a travel agent’s poster of Milan and attempt to inspire the drones to imagine themselves thinking in some new manner, somewhere else, besides their dreary lives and in even drearier cubicles…
…no, I mean the sort of new-thing-every-five-seconds sort of innovation, where you mentally reinvent the wheel four different times while setting that better mousetrap as you star in your own beloved sitcom and approve your likeness on the unbreakable plastic cup Seven-Eleven is offering with this summer’s Slurpees.
I mean the sort of innovation that inspires a whole new way of looking at things, a leap of faith, and a unique reinterpretation of How Things Work, all rolled into one.
So, not to put too fine a point on it, the question really shouldn’t be “Where do you get your ideas?” but rather, “What do I do with my ideas once I have them?”
And, you know… with that one…
…I’m not going to be much help.
You’ve gotta answer that one on your own.
But I will impart this: your emphasis should not be so much on the “what” part of the equation as it should be on the “do.”
Or, as my coarse and somewhat earthy Dad says, “Do something, even if it’s wrong.”
But then, my Dad’s a Man of Action.
A poet, any real poet, is simply an alchemist who transmutes his cynicism regarding human beings into an optimism regarding the moon, the stars, the heavens, and firstname.lastname@example.org
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