Whenever I talk to students or aspiring journalists there is one question I dread. It’s also a question I can almost guarantee someone will ask. And it’s this: “Where do you get your ideas?”
I usually answer first, with a performative groan. I hate this question, I say. It’s a good one of course. It’s one I asked guest speakers too. Then I give some kind of answer that usually consists of a combination of things. I recount when a former editor once told me “anything can be a story.” I give the cliche answer that they should “always be curious about everything.” I tell them that when I’m really stuck, I go to a random word generator, and then plug the words it gives me into Google Scholar (this is true, and has resulted in many stories for me). I tell them to always ask sources “what’s the coolest thing happening in your field right now?” or “is there anything else you want to talk about?” I tell them to always keep a notebook or a phone handy. I tell them to read, read, read, write down questions, and talk to people who might not seem useful, because you never know.
The students nod and take notes when I say these things. And then, more often than not, I go home, and I stare at a blank document and think to myself: “How do I come up with ideas?”
Today is one of those days. And so, in the spirit of my former editor, who told me that anything could be a story, here is a post about ideas. Or, more specifically, not having them. This is an ode to all the ideas that have escaped my grasp. Or, that I could never quite catch in the first place.
Whenever I am lacking in ideas, I open up my ideas list. I have a whole Evernote note of ideas. It’s called “Running Ideas List.” (Note to self: I should rename it something more inspiring. Something that gives it the sense of preciousness and energy that it should have. Maybe, “Idea Orbs” or “Ripples in Spacetime” or something.)
But today, I opened up the list, and for one reason or another, none of these little idea orbs are speaking to me.
In some cases, I have no clue what these little snippets are about. What did I mean, when I wrote “Polish Star Trek fans?” What is a “Western whistle?” And what, exactly, about exosomes did I think might make a good story?
In other cases, I’m bored by the idea. They feel silly, and small. Things like: “I always know when my brother is typing because he has this very distinct way of hitting the space bar. It’s ferocious. Maybe a post about whether typing styles are identifiable down to the person?” And “What is that popping sound your heater makes?” And the utterly riveting “Road surfaces, why so bad?”
In some cases, I like the idea, but it would require a bit more reporting than I have time for at the moment. “Who is responsible for making a radio edit of songs with curse words? Who decides which words get cut? And who picks the sound effects they use? Sometimes it’s a bleep, other times it’s a quick jump cut, and other times it’s a weird warp wound effect?” (If anybody wants to go find this out and write about it, please do, and let me know what you find.)
Then there’s a sub-list of papers I want to read and potentially summarize. These are usually selected because the title jumped out at me. “Sociology of Modern Cosmology” and “Riding the Permafrost Rooster Across the Roof of the World.” There’s a paper about a maze in an Irish prison, and one about chain letters and their role in constructing group identity. By now, most of these are old enough that I’ve forgotten saving them, and almost all of them are obscure enough to make an editor raise their eyebrow should I be foolish enough to pitch a story about them.
Other times, the ideas are still interesting to me. But they’re too big, too sprawling, too much work for an evening, for a blog post. I guard these ideas, even though I know that I might never actually find the time to do them. But they feel precious to me. Like a giant rock that might be hiding a diamond. They’re heavy, and they’re getting dirt all over the place, and I really should do something with them because they smell a bit funny, and there might be nothing inside, but I cherish them nonetheless.
Perhaps the next time I open up this document one of these things that seems boring to me, will sparkle again. I’m never going to erase anything on the list, even the ones I am baffled by. Perhaps the next time I look, I will remember what a Western whistle is. Or maybe I’ll be smitten by the idea of figuring out why we can land on the moon but we can’t pave roads that last longer than a few years. You never know when one of these little orbs might find its glow again. So I will keep adding, adding, adding, gathering little blips as I go.
One of my favorite parts of the job of journalism, is coming up with ideas. And I do truly think that ideas are everywhere, and that finding them is a matter of asking the right questions, and following your own strange interests. But now, maybe when I answer that question about where I find ideas, I should add one thing: if you can’t think of an idea, you could always write about not having any ideas. It will work at least once.