Ideas Come as Little Phrases or Images

From The Story from the Static: On Writing and Painting by Audrey Niffenegger:

I have spent most of my life feeling like a woman trying to listen to the radio in a thunderstorm. I am trying to get an idea, something I can turn into a picture, or a novel, and occasionally such a thing does whiz into my brain and it's my job to pick it out from all the static of daily life and find out if it means anything.

Before I can think very hard about this idea I have to figure out if it's a word The Letter, 2005thing or a picture thing. Ideas tend to come to me in the form of little phrases ("the time traveler's wife"; "self-portrait as Siamese twins") or as images (three women with long hair sitting together but refusing to speak to each other; a lady reading a book with a giant spider perched on her hat, also reading the book). These four ideas became a novel, a painting, a picture book, a tiny drawing. They could have taken other forms. I have to take each idea and turn it over in my head, trying it out to see what it does, to see how I can make it bigger and stronger. Mostly I am just trying to see, period. I'm trying to look at it, listen to it, attend to it; I'm trying to find out what it wants.

It takes me a long time to make things, and that's good. The more time I have, the more I can add and subtract, the better the thing will be.

My novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, began as a phrase that came to me while The Time Traveler's Wifedrawing. I could see the main character as an old woman, waiting for her time traveler. But was it a picture, or something else? The characters suddenly had names; as I went about my daily life they began to have personalities, desires, schemes. At this point I realized that a picture book wasn't going to work. Still images are always the present, and they don't capture the fluidity of time. I had the choice of trying to write a novel (which I'd never done) or make a movie (very expensive and requiring the help of other people). I began to write.

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