I have never asked this question of anyone else. I have on only a few occasions been asked this question myself. What brought it to my mind was an essay of Ursula K. Le Guin’s on the topic, and it seems to me that this is a question in code.
No one ever lacks for ideas. No one. They’re everywhere. They are the air. It’s just about letting them arrange themselves. Seeing where they fit. And they all fit, eventually. Just not always where you thought they might go.
The question of “where do you get your ideas?” seems to be asked more in the spirit of “how do you do what you do?” It seems to me that no one wants to know where the ideas come from. They already know. They already have a million of their own when the question leaves their lips. They want to know about the alchemy of exploration, of changing those observations of the every day into something sharp, clear, large or small, something touchable, lickable, readable, seeable. They seem to want to know how to make that ache of longing in themselves or a reader.
And the answer is different for everyone. There is no clear formula. Every author’s answer is familiar and strange at once. For me? Fermentation. It has to ferment, to cure, to transform. Every day, I see something, or two strange words will decide to lie next to one another, and that’s how it starts. They are stones that I pick up. I have to carry them for a while before I sit down to arrange them. I have to do this many times before it comes out right. There is no effortlessness in it, but there is a love of effort. There is a sureness in it.
For others? Ask them. But don’t ask, “where do you get your ideas?” Because you know. You have your own. They intrigue you, they carry you. Maybe you don’t trust them. Maybe you do. But you have them. Ask maybe instead, “How do you work with your ideas? How do you place them next to one another? What is similar and different each time?” And answer the question yourself. Because you already have your own way of doing it.