Where a Writer Grows Her Ideas

Sharon Bala, author of The Boat People, reveals the perennial source of her imagination.


There’s a pattern I’ve noticed. At some point during interviews and at literary events, the inevitable question is posed to the author: where do you get your ideas?

My stories, all my best ideas, come from the compost heap. I’ll hear a funny anecdote at a dinner party or read an interesting Dear Abby column. Two girls on a train will conduct a loud back-and-forth about their exes. They will speak with a curious mix of inexperience and wisdom, and I will secretly—and without compunction—thumb every word into a note on my phone.

These scraps, the literary equivalent of eggshells and orange peels, are invaluable fodder, but rarely do they turn into stories right away. More often, these bits get set aside for later, tossed on that fertile pile I think of as my compost heap.

Every writer should cultivate one and feed it regularly. The first step is to pay attention. Listen to people, to patterns of speech, to dialect, to what is both said and unsaid, the questions left unanswered. Make note of body language. Tune in to your feelings and how they manifest in your body—the stomach churn that signals anxiety, the thrill mid-chest that is excitement. Watch children at play. There’s something elemental here: cruelty and kindness. What you are collecting is vital organic matter. Let it mix and decompose. Tilled by the subconscious, it produces the rich humus from which tiny shoots poke out, ideas that take root and grow into stories.

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We are all talented fabulists. After all, what are dreams if not elaborate tall tales? They are narratives concocted while the conscious, rational brain slumbers and the subconscious—that uninhibited storyteller—takes over. Unfettered by ego, unchecked by critique, it makes up fantasies that can terrify and titillate, pound hearts and spill tears. Dreams so visceral they have the power to haunt waking life. How to tap into this power, this engine that spins yarns while we sleep?

I like to assign my brain homework. If I’m struggling to write a new scene, if I’m filling a plot hole or can’t quite hear a character’s voice in my head, I’ll think about the problem while lying in bed, let the subconscious mull it over while I sleep, then return to it first thing in the morning. Sometimes the answer is waiting—an opening sentence or a revealing scrap of dialogue.

First thing in the morning is the best time to tap into the subconscious. Begin when it’s quiet, in dim lighting, before speaking to your partner or children or roommate, when image and imagination are still at the forefront, and language hasn’t yet been employed into quotidian service. Some writers linger under the covers and daydream, staying in the liminal space of not-quite-wakefulness to let their thoughts roam free over the terrain of their stories. Others prefer to start writing right away.

Use a paper and pen. There is a time and place for the computer’s bright screen, for double-spaced paragraphs of 12-point serif font. There is a time for the conscious brain, the persnickety perfectionist, to revise and refine. But at the creative stage, the rational brain—that inner critic—is a hindrance. Let it sleep a little longer.

The imagination requires a little mess. Scribbles in the margins, crossing out and writing over, arrows. What you write might be fully formed scenes or a random list of words. It doesn’t matter. Thoughts will flow out of order. Note them down as they arrive, without judgment. Be receptive to everything. Dismiss nothing. Court outrageous ideas, the silly and frivolous, the improbable. The goal is to let loose on the page.

There are other hacks I’ve used: a glass of wine to release inhibitions, writing with my non-dominant hand (the idea being that the conscious brain will be too busy forming letters to critique), thinking about a story during a tough spin class, or while laid out in Shavasana at the end of a yoga class.

Every writer can identify with the magical feeling of being in the zone—that creative space where ideas and phrases arrive of their own accord and need only to be recorded. The zone is the realm of the subconscious, that natural storyteller who emerges from the compost heap with ready-made tales. Tapping into your imagination is a skill that can be improved with time and practice. Do that, and you’ll never have writer’s block again.

Featured Illustration: Tyler Spangler; Author Photo: © Nadra Ginting

SHARON BALA lives in St. John’s where she is a member of The Port Authority writing group. Her short story “Butter Tea at Starbucks” won the prestigious Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize in 2017. The Boat People is her first novel. 


SHARON BALA lives in St. John’s where she is a member of The Port Authority writing group. Her short story “Butter Tea at Starbucks” won the prestigious Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize in 2017. The Boat People is her first novel. 

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