Ursula Le Guin Answers a Trick Question

At some point in their lives writers are asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” Some writers make thoughtful comments to put the questioner at ease (a bit like tossing someone a cupcake as a distraction); others get snarky or hide behind humor; and some, like me, try to elude the question altogether.

Admiral AckbarDon’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some very creative and convincing responses to this question. And just because I run away screaming when someone asks doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about it. Oh yes, I’ve fabricated all kinds of elaborate, deep and clever answers because I figure a fantasy author should be able to do that. But that’s all it is. Fantasy. An honest answer, on the other hand, goes something like this:

“Ugh. Who knows.”

Not very imaginative, is it. That’s because “Where do you get your ideas?” is a trick question. In my own defense, I don’t concoct responses to impress others as much as to convince myself — because the whole thing is a Mystery with a capital “M”. Whenever I think about it, I find myself in deeper and deeper waters. It’s not a question one can answer definitively unless one is full of crap.

EarthseaAs a kid, one of my first and most influential flights into the fantasy genre was the Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin. I still have the 1968 mass market copies of those books, which I keep in a special place in my favorite bookcase. When I first read them, I never thought I’d write novels one day, let alone contemplate where the ideas came from. When I recently came across a collection of quotes entitled Ursula K. Le Guin on Where Ideas Come From, the “Secret” of Great Writing, and the Trap of Marketing Your Work, I found a good answer to the Trick Question. This was one of those life defining events that came with a brilliant flash of perspective that had been synthesizing over the years.

Here is Ms. Le Guin’s take on it, given with the grace befitting a wise soul and master of the craft:

“The more I think about the word ‘idea,’ the less idea I have what it means. … I think this is a kind of shorthand use of ‘idea’ to stand for the complicated, obscure, un-understood process of the conception and formation of what is going to be a story when it gets written down. The process may not involve ideas in the sense of intelligible thoughts; it may well not even involve words. It may be a matter of mood, resonances, mental glimpses, voices, emotions, visions, dreams, anything. It is different in every writer, and in many of us it is different every time. It is extremely difficult to talk about, because we have very little terminology for such processes.

I would say that as a general rule, though an external event may trigger it, this inceptive state or story-beginning phase does not come from anywhere outside the mind that can be pointed to; it arises in the mind, from psychic contents that have become unavailable to the conscious mind, inner or outer experience that has been, in Gary Snyder’s lovely phrase, composted. I don’t believe that a writer ‘gets’ (takes into the head) an ‘idea’ (some sort of mental object) ‘from’ somewhere, and then turns it into words and writes them on paper. At least in my experience, it doesn’t work that way. The stuff has to be transformed into oneself, it has to be composted, before it can grow a story.” – Ursula K. Le Guin

The Archmage of Roke couldn’t have said it better.

© F.T. McKinstry 2014. All Rights Reserved.

2 thoughts on “Ursula Le Guin Answers a Trick Question

  1. Very nice. I think that sometimes readers ask that question because they’re stuck and can’t think of anything else to say. All the same, it IS mysterious where the flow of a novel really comes from, and one can’t help but be curious! On yet another hand, I’ve come to take it more or less for granted that every novel has its own creation myth behind it and so what’s the point of asking? It arrived here–somehow–and that’s all that matters.


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