Where Dreams Come From by Lev Butts

If I had to guess, I would say that the most common question an author gets asked is "Where do you get your ideas from?" This question is also, coincidentally, the most impossible to answer.

Except for this guy. His most commonly asked question is
"What if you die before you finish the last two volumes of  A Song of Ice and Fire?"
His answer is pretty concise.
It's a question that almost every author from John Irving to Stephen King, from Neil Gaiman to me dreads. And it is the most understandable question. Think about it. How often have you watched a movie or television show or read a book or comic or play and thought, "That story story seemed so simple and clear. I could write something like that if only I had that idea first. How can I have that idea first?"

The thing is, though, that we can't share where our ideas come from any more than we can teach someone to have a sense of humor. Sure I can tell you that the idea for Guns of the Waste Land came from reading an article about heroes in American fiction in which the author said the cowboy was America's answer to the knight, but that is hardly helpful, is it? I mean, I've already written that story.

And it's not really what people want to know usually. The question they are really asking is "How can I have good ideas like that and write my own stories?" And the answer there is actually pretty simple:

Train your imagination.

You need to learn to do something you probably did effortlessly as a child: use your imagination. How many of you had imaginary friends? Monsters under the bed or in the closet?

When we were children, the world was a magical place. Not always nice, but magical. In the dark lurked spirits and monsters and demons ready to spirit us off to hellish realms where'd we never see our mothers again. The woods and fields, though, were home to sprites and elves and hobbits and dwarves who would lead us off on grand adventures if we'd just let ourselves. Sure the elves and dwarves were most likely other kids from the neighborhood, but it didn't matter as long as we were playing.

Then we grew up, and all those things went by the wayside. Life got in the way: School, job, family. We began using our imagination in more practical ways: devising ways to cut corners at work, figuring out how to creatively skip one bill this month in order to pay off other bills instead. The only times we actively engage our creative imaginations are when we watch films or read books, and even then we are really just borrowing the imaginations of the authors.

Unless you're these guys:

In fact, the role playing gamers have an advantage over the rest of us because thay have consciously kept active imaginations. They are not content to simply read fantasy stories, they participate in creating them.

Now I'm not saying that we need to all go out and find a gaming group that meets once a week, but we do need to give more effort to exercising our imaginations in a similar way. Here's something I do regularly:

Fill in the blanks of reality.

Whenever I'm out in the world, I try to keep an eye out for odd little things that seem out of place or inexplicable, and I explain them. In other words, I create stories that explain the unexplainable.

The other day, for instance, as I was driving home, I spied something in the middle of the road ahead. As I drew closer, I realised that it was a stuffed rabbit lying there in the median. A child's toy, not some kind of taxidermy. So I began wondering how it got there. Sure, probably fell out a window or something when a kid got animated in his or her play and mom or dad refused to stop for it. But maybe it was clue to some child abduction case, or maybe the rabbit had escaped from a tyrannical kid's toy chest and had gotten this far before being flattened by a semi.

The stories don't have to be great, or even well-developed. They can still have blanks in them, but my goal is to try and create a much more entertaining tale than the horribly mundane series of events that likely occurred.

I'll give you a better example.

The Strange Case of the Raptured One-Legged Hooker.

Last week I was in Kansas City, Missouri, grading Advanced Placement essays for seven days straight. The grading site, a warehouse inside the KC Conference Center, was about 1 1/3 miles from my hotel, so I decided to walk there every day in order to get some modicum of exercise before and after my eight-hour stint of sitting in an uncomfortable chair grading mediocre essays.

We weren't allowed cameras, but I managed to sneak this picture
when the guards weren't looking.
On the way there my fourth day, I came across a lone shoe by a No Parking sign. "Huh," I thought, "there's a story there. That shoe didn't just park itself by that sign, and somewhere, I guess is a woman walking around with only one high-heeled shoe on. I mean, this is not something you just forget to put back on."

So I posted the picture to Facebook:

Caption: There's a story here.

It did not take long for my friends to respond including this interesting exchange:

From here a narrative was born. A narrative that developed more and more as the week wore on since each day I walked to work a different way, and each day, I found another bizarre sight: lacy bra and panties by the side of the road on day five, followed by a golden pillow the day after that, some jumbo sized star shaped glitter on the sidewalk the next day, a discarded pair of rubber gloves that evening, and finally a banana spray painted on the sidewalk the last day of my stay.

I posted each picture in turn and gradually a narrative emerged:

Caption: "My God. It's full of stars."
We don't know where she came from or where she went,
but we think she may have shed this mortal coil.
Caption: The investigation, it appears, is under way.

As you see, gradually, a narrative emerges about the disappearance of a young, one-legged hooker, who left a trail, a la Hansel and Gretel, of discarded clothing. A trail which, tragically, ended only in a scattering of stars. The authorities investigated, though, and finally a culprit was discovered and our hapless victim named:

Is this a full and complete narrative? Not really. Is it compelling? Maybe. It's certainly silly, and it functioned mainly to keep me occupied on my walk to work each morning. More importantly, though, it's a narrative that is tons more interesting than the more probable causes of each picture: drunken shenanigans, an unsecured pillow in a truck, glitter falling from a punctured crafts bag, lazy med techs, and a fairly good graffiti artist. 

Once the undergarments were found, my imagination went into overdrive. I made a conscious effort each day after that to find at least one bizarre thing to photograph and work into the story. And that is the point of this exercise. Tell at least a mildly interesting story.

I don't know that "The Strange Case of the Raptured One-Legged Hooker" will ever make it into a genuine short story, but that's not the point. 

The point is to keep yourself open to the little mysteries life throws at you and allow your imagination to play with them. 

That's where ideas, and dreams, come from. 


Bill Kirton said…
Brilliant, Lev - and a succinct reminder of what I suspect most of us do, possibly at a subconscious level. And you MUST write that up as at least a short story.
Susan Price said…
Perhaps try NOT making her a hooker? (Hayfever is bad this morning.)
Lydia Bennet said…
I like the idea of posting a narrative from seen stuff, great idea Lev.
glitter noir said…
Well done, Lev. I'd love a combo of yours and Sue's take: she isn't really a hooker. But he writes her as one--and is killed, but not because he portrayed her as a hooker. ")
Enid Richemont said…
As a child, I believed in fairies, so I was always looking for the way into that magical, alternative world. I'm impressivly old now, but still looking. A discarded sweet wrapper glitters in the sun, and I still think : that's it. A tin can, a ray of sunlight, and I'm off, like Alice down the rabbit hole. So as for abandoned rabbits and discarded underwear - there's no holding me.

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