It’s a question put by almost everyone who doesn’t run into writers every day of the week, and it elicits an inner groan, partly because it’s so common as to be boring and partly because there’s something uncomfortable in the notion that we writers possess a secret we can’t account for. Mostly I get through by mumbling a platitude to disguise the fact that, wherever the stuff does come from, I don’t feel in the least “inspired”.
I think the difficulty in devising an answer lies in the way the question is formulated. By asking “where?” the questioner is already assuming that the answer involves a physical, metaphorical or (god help us) spiritual place: a box filled with ideas, into which writers dip for their share. However, the box doesn’t exist, and it’s the pretence that it does – the acceptance of the “where?” within the question – that has made my previous answers incoherent. So here I am, this time trying to do better. And the beginning of the answer can be found in reformulating the question so that it’s no longer “Where do writers get their ideas from?” ; but rather: “How do you get your ideas?” In this revised form as a “how?” rather than a “where?” question, the implication is that the answer involves the description of a process rather than the location of a place.
By way of digression, the above discussion illustrates how a superficially neutral question may guide the nature of the answer down a false path and exclude alternatives.
My answer to the “how?” question has three parts. The first requires consideration of the nature of the response writers make to the things they see, hear and read, and the people and situations they encounter. Non-writers, quite reasonably, respond in emotional or practical ways: for example, they think a situation is interesting, or boring, or horrible, or useful. Obviously writers have similar responses, but – and this is the key – in addition they say to themselves, consciously or unconsciously: there’s a story in this. In short writers are using exactly the same resource of experience as non-writers, but in a different way.
The second part of my answer has its source in memory. I’m speaking personally, but I suspect my experience is fairly general, at least among writers. My memory sometimes feels like an old lumber room which I navigate with a flickering torch. It’s full of images and information which, on an ordinary view, might be considered trivial, obscure or useless, yet I continue to store them because I find them of interest. This is another instance where the writer’s behaviour (memorising in this case) is driven by the fact that he or she responds differently to a non-writer. Only in this sense do we have access to a “place” that isn’t available to non-writers. All of us have been exposed to the same material, but the writer has stored it and can recover it.
The final part of my answer relies upon the ability of writers to make connections and patterns out of the miscellany stored in memory or picked up on the hoof even during the actual process of writing. This pattern recognition and ability to make connections is what gives writers access to their stored memories or enables them to recognise the potential artistic usefulness of present experience. One reason why good writers are vivid or interesting is because the process of recombining elements allows them to present the reader with scenes or images that are novel or insightful. Yet the bits may not be original: only the combination is striking. Again, writers are sharing the same experiences as everyone else, but – if we’re fortunate – we’re getting something different out of them. It’s this aspect that sustains the illusion that the writer has access to a special “place” .