What the #&%$ is The Imaginary Playground?
For the first time in a while, I’ve been answering one of the, “old standard” questions posed to authors: Where do you get your ideas?
Well, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my writing process, and I find myself redefining the answer to that question. Up until maybe three months ago, I’d give people this vague line that went something like, “Ideas are always out there, floating around everybody’s heads. All you have to do is grab one and run with it.”
Or something to that effect. It’s a paraphrase and elaboration of a line from the movie Heat, where Robert DiNiro, a bankrobber, is asking where this guy gets his information about bank security. Watch the movie and you’ll understand where I pulled it from; the truth is that I liked the line and felt it applied to my situation as a writer. Ideas are out there, all the time. They’re all those “what-if” thoughts that most of us dismiss out of hand, or chuckle about before discarding. I like to think of my role as picking up those what-ifs and letting them fester.
And how do I do that? Here’s where my current theory of creativity comes into play. It’s a little weird, but then again, the whole process of creativity is weird. And so we come to the imaginary playground.
I contend that most of us hear voices. Maybe one or two or three, but we have internal voices that we sometimes call conscience, inner child, the angel and devil perching on opposite shoulders, whispering nice and naughty in our ears. Perhaps most of us don’t acknowledge them as voices in an effort to avoid sounding crazy, but I do. I can’t help it. In addition to my own yapping sides, several hundred people are crammed in my head, all of them running around and jumping and waving and shouting for my attention. They live on what I call the Imaginary Playground of my mind, and if you’ve got an image of grade school recess, you’re halfway there. Yes, my people run around and climb on the jungle gym and swing on the swings, but they also try to launch each other off the teeter-totter by jumping on the other side, cartoon style, from the top off the slide. They fight and jostle, and when they see me peeking at them, they all surge forward and start really clamoring for attention, until the jumbled mass looks like the pit of a stock market exchange. Everybody makes complicated hand signals. Everybody tries to shout over each other. Occasionally a fight breaks out. They’ve even been known to protest when I spend too much time with one set of characters (this happened repeatedly during the Redheads & Bubblegum process; I nearly had to quell a riot, once).
The point is that I pick one, or a group of them, and start transcribing their story. Sometimes they have the what-if scenario. Sometimes I recruit them to an idea I’ve already got going. In these ways, I fuse character to plot, and that’s where things start to take off. That’s the seed of story.
Maybe this sounds like lunacy, but it’s what really happens…for me. The beauty of the creative process lies in its inability to be quantified, boiled down, or standardized. Everybody’s different. The key is so simple it’s often overlooked: go with what works. I don’t fight the process, and it rewards me. What else could I want?
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