Paying Attention or Paying Money?

Harlan Ellison tells people who ask him where he gets his ideas from that there’s a company in Schenectady, NY, that sends him a six-pack of the things for $25 a week. I’ve always loved that answer because it reveals the ignorance of the questioner and allows the answerer the opportunity to pontificate.

And, being honest, a lot of writers like to talk. It’s part of why we’re writers: we have something to say.

Telling stories is how we explore our feelings on a subject with some objectivity, some remove from the situation, through the lens of others who can say and do the things we can’t.

A good writer isn’t just a talker — he’s a listener. Putting oneself into situations where conversations and interactions are happening is how ideas are generated. (Also reading and watching stories of all sorts and varieties. But let’s not get off-track here.) Writers are trained (or train themselves) to extrapolate. We have to filter everything through our own prejudices, experiences and beliefs in order to understand. Sometimes that drives us to do further research on any given subject, which can lead to more ideas.

So where do ideas come from? A writer is sitting in a bar when someone sits down next to him and strikes up a conversation. A writer is driving a lonely country road with a friend when a tire blows out. A writer has dinner with friends and someone at the table complains about aggressive squirrels on the campus at work. A writer hears a heart-rending story on the radio about a couple who did something extraordinary.

All seeds for a story, or a bit that can influence where a story might go.

The reason that question gets asked of a writer is that the average person doesn’t do the work to extrapolate the idea from the bit of conversation or experience and doesn’t take the time to ask ‘what if…?’ It’s not that they can’t, it’s that they don’t. Writers are interested in what happens next. We ask questions, sometimes we can figure out where a story’s going before the characters involved do. We can see. And then we wonder why, why, why?

I’ve imagined a machine where a phrase goes in my ear and into a setup of filters and tubes and glass bubbles turning from a gas (spoken word) into a liquid that’s distilled into a core idea. It percolates in the still in my head, then seeps into my bloodstream where it circulates for a while, eventually returning to the (dis)still(ery) a more refined liquid where it waits to be chosen. When it’s ready for consumption, it becomes a solid as it slips out through my fingers dancing across the keyboard: a line of letters forming words, sentences, paragraphs.

Those lines delineate stories and experiences. All I had to do was ask ‘why’ and ‘what if—’ and ‘how about—’. It’s transformed from the thing that triggered those questions into something new.

So either way, ideas come from all around me or I get them from a company in Schenectady, New York. Which explanation do you like better?

Jason Arnett is a storyteller living in Kansas and writing in the plains of the fantastic. Some of his work can be found at

1 Comment

  • Harlan Ellison is my all-time favorite asshole. I’ve honed my own sarcasm by studying his methodology, and I return to his offerings when I fall limp and uninspired. I only hope to be able to meet him in person some day and kiss his … foot.

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