Essay: Author N.K. Jemisin and 'The Idea' Problem

Posted by Cybil on July 29, 2017

Sponsored by Ready Player One. Soon to be a major motion picture directed by Steven Spielberg.

The conclusion to N.K. Jemisin's award-winning fantasy series The Broken Earth hits stores on August 15. The first two books in the series, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, won back-to-back Hugo Awards for Best Novel, making Jemisin the first black writer to win the esteemed science fiction and fantasy prize. Before the third book, The Stone Sky, is released, the author shares her thoughts on creating art and how we think about ideas.

Probably my least-favorite interview question is the one I get most often: "Where do you get your ideas?" I've tried repeatedly to figure out if there's an easy way to answer this question that doesn't come off as patronizing or glib, and there just isn't.

There are no easy answers because it isn't actually an easy question, though lots of people apparently think it is.

Here's the thing: When people ask this question, I think they're actually asking something else. See (gets out soapbox), there's a fundamental failure to understand art in American society. This is partly because we've basically eliminated art education for all but our wealthiest class, but some of it is just endemic to a capitalist society that views everything in terms of commodities. That's what we think of, when we think of art: Things produced, demonstrating skills learned, and sometimes materials used. This is why it's a lot harder to earn a living as a verbal storyteller, for example, than as a writer—even though storytelling requires just as well-honed a skill set. Writing commodifies more easily*.


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This becomes a problem when we start to think of ideas as commodities. Pretty much every pro writer I know has encountered some random stranger who "offers" an idea, usually in a conspiratorial whisper and with a wink, if only the writer will do the minor, minor work of turning that idea into a story.

In forums and online writing workshops, it's common to see new writers worrying that someone will use their idea to write a bestselling book, leaving the originator unrecognized and in poverty.

News flash: Artists don't need other people's ideas. Why? Because ideas are everywhere. At any given time, all of us are drowning in them. The measure of an artist lies in the ability to encapsulate these ideas and give them form in a way that others can share.

So when people ask me where I get my ideas, I think they're actually trying to figure out what, exactly, makes me an artist. How is it that I read news articles about supermassive black holes and envision them as a lonely god? Why do I dream about mountains and come up with a magic system based on seismology? Everyone dreams, after all. Everyone reads articles about the physical world, or encounters interesting people, or has unusual experiences. This is a mundane, everyday thing.

So why do artists' mundane experiences become art?

I see the world this way because I was taught to. My father is a visual artist, himself the son of a musician, and throughout my childhood he showed me how to be intentional about observing the world around me. But this is a learnable skill, not something inherited; most writers aren't lucky enough to grow up with an artist parent, after all. Some picked it up in school or other structured environments, but others are self-taught.

That's just how it happens sometimes: Somewhere along the way, every artist notices something as mundane as a rock and thinks about it. Considers its scent, its texture, its weight. Wonders where it came from, and where it will be in ten thousand years, assuming it hasn't been worn down to sand by then. Envisions the people who have held it, skipped it across the surface of a lake, thrown it at their enemies.

Try it, sometime. Look around, wherever you are as you read this, find something mundane, and think about it for a while. Bam! Now you've got an idea, too. Do something with it, and you're an artist.

Have fun!

*Although nowadays, thanks to hip hop and podcasts and structured storytelling events like open mic nights, it's getting better.

Be sure to add N.K. Jemisin's The Broken Earth series to your Want to Read shelf.

See the complete coverage of Sci-Fi & Fantasy Week including:
Top 50 Favorite Fantasy Novels on Goodreads
Top 10 YA Fantasy Books
The Martian's Andy Weir Picks Space Colonization Sci-Fi


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Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)

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message 1: by Caroline (new)

Caroline Great blog and very interesting.


message 2: by arif (new)

arif Very interesting IDEA about Idea itself!!!!
Made me thinking of my surroundings.....I believe, this capacity of observing minor details in mundane life and connecting them.....as if torrents making a river....creates a story.
Looking forward to read her books.


message 3: by David (last edited Jul 31, 2017 12:55AM) (new)

David All so true. Why did I read the wikipedia page for fatal familial insomnia and immediately feel compelled to write a short story about it set in a recently post-industrial monarchical fantasy world? Couldn't tell you, just happened.

Man, I really need to get around to reading that copy of The Fifth Season my girlfriend bought me months ago...


message 4: by Martin (new)

Martin What a great article. Reminds me of the approach the writer John Cowper Powys took to being in the universe. Everything is significant, everything has value. When out and about walking around, he would 'aware' to not just the view but his immediate environment.


message 5: by Sandy (new)

Sandy Love this essay, though I always love reading what N.K. Jemisin has to say.


message 6: by Julian (new)

Julian Thank you, great post. I think we have all read books that are just an idea with a story tacked on but with no life or art infused into it. Only that type of book could be ripped off, never a fully worked novel.


message 7: by Bea (new)

Bea Cayaban I loved this. As a writer myself, I can say for a fact that this is almost always EXACTLY how it happens (at least for me).


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