“Where do you get your ideas?”
The questioner lowers his raised hand, glad that I called on him. His eager eyes are glowing.
I say something about song lyrics and scraps of conversation that have sparked story ideas for me.
But, just once, I’d like to answer:
Well, there’s this special access pass to the Great Ideas Warehouse that they give you when you graduate with a Creative Writing degree. It’s only available to people like me. *snarky chuckle*
But really, the honest and not-so-mysterious truth: I get my ideas just like the rest of the world. I build my career around these ideas, which means I rely on them more heavily than someone pursuing these as a hobby. This sometimes makes the ideas harder to come by. It’s certainly not easier for me than, say, you or your Uncle George.
That said, I’ll share a few things that help my creative juices seep forth:
- Determined Digging – I truly believe that if I sit down day after day with the intent to dredge something up, my chances are one billion times better than just waiting for inspiration to strike. “Inspiration strikes” are sporadic and unreliable. I set aside time each day, even if I feel completely bland and boring, to do this digging. Sometimes I get nothing, but I almost always turn over something small that has growth potential.
- Unstoppable Brainstorming – I grab a pen and write down everything that comes to mind, beginning with an observation about my surroundings or an idea that’s been tickling my head. I set a timer, and once the brainstorm session starts, I’m not allowed to stop writing or drawing out the ideas. I’m continually surprised by how my thoughts get more coherent and interesting about halfway through these timed sessions. (10-15 minutes is a good time for this, though I sometimes do up to 30.)
- Chasing Obsession – When I can’t get traction on any ideas, I’ve found fruit in chasing an idea or theme that won’t leave me alone. For example, it was all the hype around Water for Elephants and The Night Circus that spurred the birth of my own circus short story, Tightrope. Likewise, I’ve always been fascinated by the film Jumanji, even though it terrified me. The idea of burying something powerful and forbidden spurred the first scene of my novel Forecast.
Creativity is a hard business. A stick-to-it-ness is absolutely essential. There are endless ways to help ideas flow. The above three are among my most common techniques.
What creative jump-starts do you use?
P.S. John Cleese has a fabulous 13 minute video on the subject of coming up with ideas: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/04/12/john-cleese-on-creativity-1991/
This Post Has 6 Comments
Angel Lopez8 Jul 2013
What do you mean by digging?
Elise8 Jul 2013
By “digging,” I mean sitting down with strong intent to stir up an idea or answer a question I know needs to be answered to further my project. Often, in this case, it’s sifting around aggressively through my brain for trains of thought that I can link together to make a bigger chain that holds my interest. The hardest part of the “digging” process is sitting down to do it regularly.
D.Scott Phillips8 Jul 2013
Great suggestions, Elise. Thanks for sharing!
Elise8 Jul 2013
Glad you liked these, Scott! I hope they help. I’ve always kinda envied that you get so many ideas on walks and runs.
Andrew F. Butters (@andrewbutters)8 Jul 2013
I LOVE that John Cleese video and have watched it many times. I did my own post on the birth of ideas (fittingly titled “Giving Birth”). Would love to hear your thoughts on it.
Elise9 Jul 2013
Andrew, I read your post and left a comment on your sight! I enjoyed it! Thanks for sharing it with me! And yes, the John Cleese video is fantastic. He’s so funny while still being so serious. Another thought that occurred to me–a lot of ideas sound amazing in their first stages, but the hard part is sticking with them to the end to make sure that the end product is still infused with the wonder of its inception. That’s quite the challenge.