Where do you get your ideas from? is probably one of those questions that writers are asked most often.
Unfortunately it’s also a loaded question. In fact, it uncritically assumes that ideas are sort of objects completely formed and ready to be used—maybe like objects sitting neatly on a shelf somewhere in a magic shop, all happily waiting for a writer to come by and choose one.
In reality ideas are made of the fuzziest substance in the universe: jumbles of often erratic human thoughts.
So much so that even if you ever managed to find a magic shop with a shelf full of ideas on sale, they would look like those things your mind sometimes dreams up.
You would find soft bricks that sing when thrown, and dissolve into thin air just an instant before they hit their target.
You would stare in astonishment at pens able to write stories by themselves—but with the not so innocent caveat that any word they write pertains to a different story.
You would find lions lashing their tails in frustration, and yawning. And in their jaws you would discover beautiful sunsets hanging there over a savanna as pink as a tongue.
You would smell Chopin nocturnes and listen to paintings made of singing colors and piping voices.
You would find also your cat on that shelf—cats sneak in everywhere, have you ever noticed? And your cat would tell you it despises you since that time you punished it for bringing home that fat rat it had been chasing especially for you.
Finally, also the rat in question would be on display, and most likely it too would have something to say. My coat! Your damn cat spoiled it!
I haven’t compiled this odd list because I think your ideas are particularly messed up or unstructured. Rather, this list is so because everyone’s ideas are more or less like this, in a manner of speaking.
And it is so because our fabulous brain can be incredibly lazy at times. Of course, it would say it’s just optimizing its resources… but we know better, don’t we?
A simple cognitive experiment
You’re not sure about our brain being that lazy? Then try this simple experiment. Think of a zebra and then, immediately after, think of an airplane.
Good. Now try to remember as precisely as possible the zebra you have thought up for a brief moment in your mind. You’ll discover that in reality you just summoned the concept a zebra. I mean, you vaguely conjured up a four legged animal with a head and with white and black strips.
It’s highly unlikely you have visualized many details of the animal itself. I mean, things like the hooves, the small tail, or the mane of the animal. Also the way zebras usually shake their ears to keep the flies away. Or the exact shape of the ears, or the way the stripes change in thickness and orientation depending on where they are.
Of course, you would say at this point, I had just begun to visualize the zebra when you told me about the damn airplane!
That’s true, but you and your brain didn’t know beforehand about the plane. So your image of the zebra had no reason to be sketchy, unless this is the usual way our brain works. That’s to say, giving us the pieces of information we need on a strict need-to-know basis.
In any case, it is interesting to notice that also the idea you hold of a zebra is bound to be different from that of anyone else’s idea of a zebra. Maybe only in some small details. But maybe also in important ones.
Ideas about (yet) non existent stories
If ideas for a real animal we all know well can be so sketchy and require a lot of concentration to be examined with a bit of accuracy, than it should be apparent that ideas about stories that haven’t yet taken place and that are full of imaginary people must necessarily be a lot more vague and uncertain.
In fact there isn’t any particular place we can go to pick up a new idea. Not for decorating our bathroom and not for writing up our next novel. Sure, we can copy somebody else’s ideas. But that’s another thing, and one that often ends in a courtroom. I mean, if we steal literary property. Not ideas about how to decorate a bathroom…
I repeat. There is not a place we can go to pick up an entirely new idea. And they don’t sit already perfectly formed in our heads either. This is so because even though our brains aren’t blank slates, at birth they aren’t fitted with everything they will ever need—creative ideas for new novels included. Not at all.
In fact, as Stephen Pinker says, since birth our brains are endowed with some structures that predispose them to behave and learn in certain ways. But then even with such constrains we can virtually come up with a limitless number of possible outcomes. Language is a nice example of this. Grammar rules make sure we can understand each other. Yet the number of different utterances we can produce is infinite.
It’s for all these reasons ideas can’t be found perfectly formed inside our heads, and they are always the temporary result of our exposition to the world.
Indeed, ideas are continually shuffled and reassembled. Even when we believe they are not.
Have a look at this short extract where John Cleese tells the anecdote about how he rewrote from memory a script he had lost. And of how, when he found the first version of it, he subsequently discovered that the second version was a lot better. Even if he had written it in a fraction of the time and paying it little attention.
In fact even if he wasn’t aware of what he was doing, in some way his subconscious must have worked on the material of his script to refine and hone it.
In short when we let our mind wander our frontal lobes, that usually act like gatekeepers for novel ideas, become less active. As a result we can come up with a greater number of creative solutions. At least, this is a possible explanation. Or the explanation of a part of the whole process…
Some famous answers to the infamous question
If there’s no place where writers can get their ideas from, the answers to such a question can be illuminating about a writer’s attitude toward the creative process.
For example, for Neil Gaiman ideas aren’t the difficult part. They’re just a small component of the creative process. The very difficult part has to do with sitting down and putting one word after another to make your vision a reality. And making it interesting and new.
For Ursula K. Le Guin the “secret” to become a writer and have ideas is skill. In fact, she argues, if you don’t know how to do something, you might be tempted to think that the people who do are some sort of magicians hiding some mysterious secrets.
Finally, also for Jack Kerouac there is nothing mysterious about writing and having ideas. Predisposition can help you to practice a lot. And it is this that leads ultimately to skill and performance.
The truly magic shop
By now it should be apparent that the only magic shop you can find is the one inside your head. And that the place where ideas come from isn’t exactly a place but a state of mind. A mixture between passion, grit, and a willingness to live in a state of uncertainty.