where do you get your ideas?

Imagine you are a writer. (Since you're reading this, you probably don't even need to imagine!) You are at a party, eating burnt pigs-in-a-blanket and drinking warm beer, talking to a person whom you just met and whose name you cannot remember. They find out what you do. Then: "I have a great idea for a book, why don't you write it and we can split the proceeds?"

You can see how the thought comes about. I want to have written this book, I don't have the time or inclination or skill to write it, here is someone who apparently has all three, perfect. And I think most people who propose such an arrangement are completely well-intentioned. Simply oblivious to the norms of the writing industry and excited about their idea, because ideas are exciting.

The problem is that ideas are not the hardest part of writing. Good ideas are a dime a dozen. Probably every day I think of a book I want to write, and I get all worked up about it, and then I remember I have to finish the book I'm currently working on, and then the one I have planned after that, and then the one after that. Maybe I'll get to that cool idea in like 20 years or something. Just in time for it to be retro.

But where do those ideas come from? This is a question I have gotten many times. Fortunately, my painter friend Liza Samuel turned me onto this amazing essay by Siri Hustvedt, "Why One Story and Not Another?" and since then whenever anyone asks I just tell them to read that essay. Hustvedt's basic thesis is that stories -- the way we tell them, the way we think about them, the way they occur to us -- come from the sum total of our life experiences. These experiences shape our thoughts so fully that when we need to make an artistic decision, there is only one true decision we can make. Hustvedt writes:

It is the accumulation of years of reading and thinking and living and feeling. It is the result of autobiography in the loosest sense—not as literal facts, but as the creation of a story that appears from a writer’s depths and feels emotionally true to her.

Boom. Hey, hello.

So when someone comes up to you and says that you should write their story, there are two ridiculous things about it. First, you can't write their idea the way they want to write it. It won't feel emotionally true because it won't be emotionally true. Theoretically if their idea resonated with you, you could take it and write from that starting point, but what emerged would be so warped and confused as to be almost unrecognizable. Second, as I said, the idea isn't the hardest part of writing. The hard part of writing is getting up every day and opening your Scrivener document even though just looking at your book makes you want to vomit. The hard part of writing is throwing out 100,000 words because they weren't good enough. They weren't emotionally true. The hard part of writing is trying to seem like a normal person when you spend most of the day in your pajamas and subsist on a diet of dill-flavored pita chips.

You know, for example.

N.B. The exception to this, sort of, is ghostwriting, where you do literally take someone else's idea and turn it into a book. But ghostwriting is different. Ghostwriters are paid up front (...because the labor takes place up front) and talented ghostwriters are able to tune into their client enough to produce a book -- a novel, a business book, whatever -- that reads as emotionally true. Any random writer is not necessarily a good ghostwriter. Ghostwriting is a particular and highly specialized skill.