Douglas Adams on Where Ideas Come From

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from Douglas Adams.

4Douglas Noël Adams, born March 11th 1952 was an author, scriptwriter, essayist, humorist, satirist and dramatist best known for his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which originated in 1978 as a BBC radio comedy before developing into a “trilogy” of five books that sold more than 15 million copies in his lifetime and generated a television series, several stage plays, a comic book series, a computer game, and in 2005 a feature film that was completed after Adams’ death.

Adams’s contribution to UK radio is commemorated in The Radio Academy’s Hall of Fame.

Adams also wrote Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, and co-wrote The Meaning of Liff, The Deeper Meaning of Liff, Last Chance to See, and three stories for the television series Doctor Who; he also served as script editor for the show’s seventeenth season in 1979. A posthumous collection of his works, including an unfinished novel, was published as The Salmon of Doubt in 2002.

In the early 1980s, Adams had an affair with novelist Sally Emerson, who was separated from her husband at that time. Adams later dedicated his book Life, the Universe and Everything to Emerson. In 1981 Emerson returned to her husband, Peter Stothard, a contemporary of Adams’s at Brentwood School, and later editor of The Times.

Adams was soon introduced by friends to Jane Belson, with whom he later became romantically involved. The two lived in Los Angeles together during 1983 while Adams worked on an early screenplay adaptation of Hitchhiker’s. When the deal fell through, they moved back to London, and after several separations and an aborted engagement, they married on November 25th, 1991.

Adams and Belson had one daughter together, Polly Jane Rocket Adams, born on June 22nd, 1994.

Adams died of a heart attack on May 11th, 2001, at the age 49.

 

Toward the end of his life, he was a sought-after lecturer on topics including technology and the environment. He was known as an advocate for environmentalism and conservation, as a lover of fast cars, cameras, technological innovation and the Apple Macintosh, and as a “devout atheist.”

“The fact is, I don’t know where my ideas come from. Nor does any writer. The only real answer is to drink way too much coffee and buy yourself a desk that doesn’t collapse when you beat your head against it.”

— Douglas Adams

I’m suffering from a real writing crisis here. I am a writer with no ideas! I love to put pen to paper, to type away all day the thoughts that pop into my head, thoughts that don’t mean much and in the end don’t leave me feeling very fulfilled, accomplished, and are not at all as lucrative as I’d like.

To say I have no ideas isn’t exactly the truth. I have ideas, they are just bad ideas, and I don’t know how to find good ones.

I want to be a good writer, and that means that I can’t write stupid or pointless things, but I’m not a good writer, yet. The catch is I can’t become a good writer without writing all the stupid and pointless things first. It seems simple enough, just write, and you will get better, so write already! But the embarrassment hurts! It’s paralyzing to be such a noob! The shame of being bad at what you love and sharing it with the world freezes you at your keyboard.

But summer is coming, and I have to use the time to move forward. I’ve been stuck lately. I had found something, a community and publication to be a part of but just as I was really getting into it, they decided to move in another direction. I’m sad, but I’m trying to think of it in a positive light. This was never something that I thought I could do as a job, it was always a stepping stone, a place for feedback and practice. I’ll miss that, but maybe now I can finally make something of my own. But what?

I want to be a freelance writer, but I’m afraid without school or a ton of connections that dream feels too far away.

I want to write a book, but I’m not sure I have enough passion or talent for fiction.

I want to be an artist too but my confidence is low, and I have no idea where to begin.

Nothing feels small enough to start with. I don’t have experience, I don’t have mentors or peers to learn from and work with. I only have idols who are light-years ahead of me and the internet which seems severely lacking in information about how to go from knowing nothing about writing to knowing something about it.

Oh, sure there is plenty of information on the rules of writing and the best practices of publishing. Even if everything contradicts everything else you at least have an idea of where to start, but what do you do if you have a desire to be a writer or an artist, but you have no idea what it is you are trying to say or how to even say it?! What do you do when you feel like a stupid noob and you can’t muster courage enough to start?

I know how to write a blog post, I know how to fill a page of my journal, I don’t know how to make something someone might pay for. I don’t know how to put together a project that is unique and valuable. I don’t know what I don’t know, and I have no idea where to begin to get an idea.

But maybe I am going about it all wrong. No, not maybe, I am certain I am. I am waiting for the ideas and the inspiration, to come to me before I get started and if there is one piece of advice I have read over and over again from author after author it has been that you just have to do something until you stumble upon something worth pursuing and sharing.

So, I’ve been rethinking everything.

I’m pushing my big dreams back to work on something small, something tangible, something that feels like a place to start. I’m working with what I know and love. I love non-fiction. I love essays. I love creative non-fiction and stories about real people and what we feel and know. I love I am putting that together with simple art, doodles, and collage, and I’m spinning these ingredients around in my mind for a little bit every day and seeing what I can come up with.

I am taking the summer to make something, and I’m doing it before I have the inspiration and the ideas all squared away. I am just going to drink coffee and bang my head until something interesting happens.

And you know what? I have a feeling that is what everyone else is doing too. It isn’t magic, or maybe it is, just not the kind of magic we are used to wishing for. We want to walk through fields of flowers, or fall in love and let the words just come to us, but that’s just not how it works. Instead, maybe we just have to brainstorm like hell, write something, post something, draw something, and decide what we think afterward. Then wake up tomorrow and do it again, only a little bit better, and a little bit better, and a little bit better, again and again. You gotta bang your head like hell and drink liquid energy, or liquid courage, whichever you need, until one day someone declares that you are finally a “good writer.”

That is the fucking magic. That is where the ideas come from, and that is the only way to get the work done. The miracle is doing the work, and I plan to work until magic and miracles happen for me too.

adams_ideas_sq

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Biographical information via Wikipedia and Goodreads

Featured image via Unsplash

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Lisa

Hello! My name is Lisa. I find the human condition fascinating and I often write stuff about that. I blog at zenandpi.com but you can also find me on Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram, and if you like what I do, consider signing up for my newsletter. Thanks :)

7 thoughts on “Douglas Adams on Where Ideas Come From”

  1. You are a good writer. Say that out loud because it’s true. I enjoy your posts – your openness and humility. Persevere, learn from others, but be You! You are the magic😊

    Like

  2. I’m having issues with coming up with ideas, too. One thing that helps me is free writing in my journal. Lately, I write about what’s going on in my daily life. Not fret about my writing journey so much.

    I like the quote by Adams. It makes a lot of sense. Sometimes, we have to work through the frustrations, even if that means beating our heads against something. At some point, ideas will start flowing. And like you said, sometimes you have to write about nothing until you get an idea that’s tangible. Even in the mundane, there’s something worth writing about.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. When totally out of ideas, one thing that could help is to engage in a bit of rummaging through the basket of old ideas. Polishing the silver… For example, re-read some old essays and start to collect favorite selections for a book of essays. You’ve been posting on this blog (apparently) since March 22, 2014… Quite a lot of good words there to sift through.

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  4. You had me at “Douglas Adams”. And you KNOW I think you are a good writer – especially your fiction (from 2016 AtoZ). If making it public is the scary thing, what about just writing all the “stupid and pointless” stuff in a notebook until it becomes something you want genuine feedback on, and then finding the place for a selected group of “public” to read it? Just a thought. Bang away!

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