The Association Game

Everybody’s always asking writers things like “Where do you get your ideas?” Often, after asking, whatever answer they get to the subject seems to leave them somehow broken, dejected and lost. There almost always seems to be a crestfallen expression, the look of dreams and ideals shattered in the face of stark reality. Sometimes I suspect it’s because those asking want to be writers themselves, and are hoping for the magic formula to finding a best-selling idea. Others are those in love wit the idea as writer-as-god, and perhaps think they will touch the sacred if they can understand how their deity has gained the divine inspiration that led them to bringing Prometheus’ fire to the masses in the form of prose or poetry.

Or maybe they’re just disappointed that people who make their living with words generally throw up an obfuscating cloud of vagueness that doesn’t really answer the question, or stares back at their interviewer, shrugs, and says “I dunno.”

Sometimes I wonder if writers actually do know where they get their ideas from, and just don’t want to share them. While I’m no stranger to the idea that things sometimes just come knocking from the ether of the subconscious, wanting to tell a story for no apparent reason other than just to tell it, there’s other days where I can quite clearly follow the breadcrumbs that led to a given tale.

I’m not attributing any sort of malice or elitism to this idea. I don’t think they hide this information – or willfully forget it themselves – out of any desire to defraud the individuals who ask the questions, or some narcissistic desire to hoard the secret to best-selling ideas to themselves.

I think they do it out of embarrassment. Fear of being thought weird (or weirder, in some cases), or mad, or somehow intellectually broken.

What led me to this conclusion? A story idea I had last night. It’s about a mailman, who discovers there’s more to the world than he first imagined, and gets wrapped up in a global conspiracy theory involving supernatural beasties. Or thinks he does. It might all just be in his head. Or in the heads of those who get him started on his grand quest.

I came to this idea from Lee Harvey Oswald. Wait, what? Yes. You know, the guy who shot Kennedy. (And while I do love to discuss and argue assorted portions of that viewpoint, that’s not what this is about.) I was looking at a book on Amazon that came up in the “You Might Like…” bar that was about the Kennedy assassination. (Oh, Amazon. You know me so well. Books about killing JFK sitting there, waiting to be clicked, sandwiched between Stephen King and an illustrated edition of the Gospel of Judas. Sounds about right.)

Realizing I hadn’t checked Netflix for new nutty JFK theories in a while, I went dredging around in their documentaries section. I found one – that was actually pretty interesting, and amusing for the number of common sense “duh” pointouts in it, all of which pretty clearly say Oswald was indeed involved and was highly likely to be the fatal shooter, even if there were others on the grassy knoll or passing by in Amelia Earhart’s stolen airplane – that then led me to another, and to another, and one of the things that was mentioned fairly often was the postal fraud (or at least deception) that Oswald was undergoing with his Free Play for Cuba movement. The next thing in my queue was Mysteries at the Museum, where the episode in question discussed a mailman discovering a supposed conspiracy to kill Kennedy based on a series of postcards that had been mailed to him, seemingly at random, from a number of locations (judging by the postmarks) where Kennedy was visiting at the time of each mailing.

Curiouser and curiouser, as they say.

Then I was taking my time over the log of ease as some might say, and reached for a book. I happened to grab The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker. Flipping through at random and starting to read at that spot (I’ve read it dozens of times, and just needed something to pass the time, so wasn’t too concerned about continuity or being “lost”), I came across the point where the villain, The Jaffe, is considering murdering his boss at the post office. He contemplates cutting up the body and mailing the parts to places unknown, so they’ll all end up at the dead letter office in the fullness of time.

That merged with the mailman’s postcards, the concept of mail fraud, the idea of a dead letter office where all truth might one day end up and resulted in my mailman conspiracy theorist idea.

It sounds stupid, crazy and awkward. And, plotting my “any day now” interview with Rolling Stone magazine, I can just picture them asking the dreaded question of the day, and I say calmly in response: “Lee Harvey Oswald.”

Yeah. That’ll go over like a ton of bricks.

What about the rest of you folks? What do you think motivates the question? The answers that are given? How truthful do you think they are? And if you’re a writer yourself, do you know where your ideas come from? What’s the weirdest chain of association that led to a finished product you’ve had? Let us know in the box below!

KA Spiral no signature

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4 responses to “The Association Game

  1. My writing ideas are triggered by many different things, so answering that question is easy if it’s more specific but impossible to generalize. Maybe people ask authors this because they wish to understand; but it confuses them because they think, wrongly, that the inspiration is the work when in fact the inspiration only fuels the words.

  2. My ‘ideas’ are never like the final product. I’ve had an ‘idea’ for a novel about an individual after hearing the second album by Au4, but I know the details of the novel flow from the character and that character already exists in a previous novel and she came from a situation in a previous novel which was a sequel and how that first novel came about…

    It started after a gushing article about 10CC and I thought ‘I don’t remember them being that good.’ Checked out their old songs on Youtube, got caught up in the similar videos until I came across the Sweet performing Hellraiser live and started thinking about seventies rock bands, the glam and the outrageous and what would happen if one of them had been murdered etc. The rest is Totenhistory.

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