Story ideas, where do you get them?

man with bulb in place of head - story ideasIn a way, it seems the problem of the origins tickles our consciousness as a species on countless levels. And, given how fascinating it is such a subject, understandably so.

Usually, writers aren’t asked to tackle cosmic questions. Rather, they are asked over and over other kinds of ‘cosmic’ questions. Questions pertaining to the genesis of new ideas and stories.

Where do you get your ideas from? How does an idea bloom into your mind?

To such questions writers often come up with a lot of different answers. Some more articulated than others. Some more serious and thorough than others.

Neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen says it is all a matter of connecting different ideas in new ways. This explanation is simple and uncluttered. So it seems all is nice and good. But how do these new ways emerge into someone’s mind?

For others instead you just have to start writing some random shit and sooner or later a story will develop almost by itself. But, again, how is it that a mess of chaotic words at some point turns into a meaningful entity?

Finally, we have still someone else–someone like me, for example–who writes a post about how he comes up with a new ceative writing idea. And to do so he comes up with a story about some mysterious sandboxes…

Idiotic, isn’t it?

After all, isn’t the use of a story to explain how a story is born the quintessential example of circularity? Or, at least, of endless and helpless regression? Besides, what is it that makes someone even willing to peek into a box filled with sand? After all, sand is sand, or not?

Explanations, we live for

In short, it doesn’t take a genius to notice two things.

The first is that about such an elusive question–really, where do you get you ideas from?–the only consensus is that there isn’t any strong consensus about the answer.

The second is that asking the question and trying to answer it remounting the ontological river up till its springs means that we are bound to go farther and farther back in time. So much indeed that we might as well end up staring right in the face of the the primordial singularity, the Big Bang, or whatever else brought into existence our universe.

These are important considerations. Considerations that should give us a hint about how difficult it is to find solid answers. However, as long as a writer somehow answers the damn question everything seems fine.

Instead, when he just shrugs and says he doesn’t know how new ideas enter his mind he is looked at with suspicion. Because, you see, that kind of answer isn’t acceptable. The writer is giving it only because he’s a stingy miser, unwilling to share the secret of creation with anyone else.

I must admit I myself am a sucker for that kind of answers. In fact, I’m always on the lookout for some new insight or a new angle from which tackle the eternal question.

(Where do you get your ideas from? How does an idea bloom into your mind? Sometimes I think I would gladly chop off somebody’s foot a la Annie Wilkins just to be let in on such a secret. The only problem is I can’t stand the sight of blood. And chopping off the foot of a zombie doesn’t count. I mean, I never heard of a zombie who made a name for himself as a writer….)


if I stop a moment and think, it stand to reason that such uncooperative writer is only being brave and honest.

In fact, in many cases it is really next to impossible to explain that ineffable moment when a new idea enters someone’s head. You can only come up with a creative process, a series of activities, steps, or rules, that can predispose you to have more and better ideas.

It’s like with driving. A world champion of rally doesn’t need to be a physicist to push his car to the limits and yet keep it on the road.  He needs to know a set of basic maneuvers and then, through practice and a grain of talent, he will end up feeling how the car is going to behave an instant before it actually does.

But then again if it were only a matter of practice and process then everybody could become a champion in whatever they chose. And this is apparently not the case.

Sure a certain process can lead to the formulation of a new brilliant idea. But that process works for someone and not for someone else. And it’s in this difference that creativity lies.

This is why one moment you have nothing and the next your wheels are spinning at full throttle. And more often than not you don’t know jack shit about how that happened.

Sure, you can try some reverse engineering. But this is a discipline that doesn’t work that well with ideas. We humans are innate liers storytellers, and the most effective and blatantly false stories we tell ourselves.

Just consider that researchers looking at our brains through an MRI can see our brain work and come up with a solution to a problem way before we are even aware we have found the solution.

Another interesting experiment with split-brain patients shows undoubtedly how one half of our brain can be completely unaware of what is going on in the other half. For example, split-brain patients who are shown an image of a face in the left half of their field of vision, and nothing in the right one, when prompted to say what they see, they say they see nothing.

This happens because the visual information from the left of their field of vision links into the right hemisphere, which has no specialized speech areas. And given that the two hemispheres are disconnected the left one can’t pass this information on to its right counterpart which consequently ends up saying it saw nothing.

Yet the split-brain patients did see something. Because if they are asked to draw a picture of what they saw, even if they claim it was nothing, they come up with the picture of a face.

Besides, when asked about their actions the patients come up with perfectly reasonable rationalizations.

So maybe, and this is a huge hypothetical maybe, writers can ‘see’ something with a part of their brain which paradoxically doesn’t connect, or not completely with the language centers. But through a series of lateral connections they manage nonetheless to ferry more or less successfully what they saw into the realm of consciousness.

Frans de Vaal, the author of the excellent The Bonobo and the Atheist says we should avoid judging the intelligence of other animals using our standards. He also presents several examples where we humans devised intelligent tests that were deeply flawed because they had been designed without taking into consideration the animals nature.

Maybe, and again this is a huge maybe, to finally answer the question of creativity we should reassess the way we look at ourselves.

Pictures: ComfreakKellepicsColiN00BElisaRiva

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