Finding Stuff to Write About

In his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about where he gets ideas. It’s a common question, I think, for anyone who writes steadily. I know people have asked me, “How do you find stuff to write about?” What King says resonates with me: I don’t go out seeking ideas, they whiz by me all day; I’ve just gotten better at recognizing them.

Good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up. (37)

He also pokes at the idea of trying to plot what you’ll write about by guessing at what other people want to read.

When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story. I’d argue that it’s impossible to make this sort of connection in a premeditated way, gauging the market like a racetrack tout with a hot tip. (160)

Given today’s world of gaming engagement and growing audience, I love King’s analogy here. Trying to choose a subject to write on that will yield high returns (whatever those are for you) can be like picking a horse at the racetrack. I’m sure people do it and do it well, but that approach doesn’t resonate much with me personally. Like King, I too often find the creativity of personal spontaneity at odds with plotting:

I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible…my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer sit to give them a place to grow (163)

As he suggests earlier, it’s not about coming up with ideas to write about. It’s about recognizing them when they pass you by (which they do, each and every day) and then finding a process, like writing and waiting, that gives the ideas a place and time to grow.

In other words: look more inward, than outward, for your ideas.

You undoubtedly have your own thoughts, interests, and concerns, and they have arisen, as mine have, from your experiences and adventures as a human being…you should use them in your work. (208)

If the driving motivation for writing comes from guessing at what others want and then writing, I think that’s a short-term motivation that will eventually die. But I also realize, as King says, “imitation precede[s] creation” (27). Ultimately, as with anything self-sustaining, you have to find your reasons for doing it. Here are King’s:

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. (269)

It’s a good consideration for the next time I sit down to write anything, be it a tweet, a blog post, or a response to somebody else’s work.