One of the weirdest questions I get asked as an author is ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ It comes up a lot, and not just for me. As an interviewer (something I do for Penton magazine at the moment) it’s not something I’d ever ask. What inspires you? Is an interesting question, because that’s not always about a straight translation into creativity. I am for example, inspired by great open vistas of sky and landscape. I like hilltops a lot. Occasionally I write poems about these things, but most often the inspiration of being on a hilltop translates into something entirely different.
Where do you get your ideas from? What is meant by ideas at this point can vary – plot, setting, characters, or on the non-fiction side, philosophy, spiritual insight, ways of practicing. For non-fiction it’s not a bad question – taking us into the realms of how ideas grow and develop, relationships with books, teachers, working groups and so forth. In fiction, the raw material is, simply, life. ‘I’m alive and paying attention’ is the only real answer to this question, which makes the oft repeating of it a bit odd, at least to my mind.
Where does anyone get ideas from? We steal them from other people. We see things and we think ‘I could have done it better than that!’ and so we figure out how, and we do it our way, which may or may not turn out to be better. And then there are the ‘ping’ moments, when you go from nothing to insight in the blink of an eye, with no rational explanation for how that enormous jump was made.
The human mind is an amazing thing. We have a capacity to see patterns – even where no patterns exist. We can build up narratives of cause and effect, even when we’re inferring that, and wrong about what caused what. We can put things together that do not inherently suggest their togetherness. We can take things apart that do not suggest dismantling. And we have this ‘ping’ capacity where some unconscious process in our minds connects the dots between things and suddenly gets a shape we had no idea we were even looking for. One viable answer to ‘where do you get your ideas from’ is ‘my brain does stuff when I’m not paying attention’.
Ideas, and the potential for ideas, are everywhere. Every stranger on the street has a story to tell. Every friend has told a story that could be turned into something else. Every fear, each last hope – these are all ideas that can be turned into things. Getting ideas has (for me at least) never been the problem. It may be for some people that the first necessary step is to recognise the sheer wealth and wonder of what is around them. Life is rich, surprising, full of things to wonder about.
The more interesting question is of selection. How do we pick a good idea from a weaker one? I could be writing about a man on a bike – there’s one just gone past my window, after all. Sometimes people on bikes are a good blog topic, but I picked this one instead, today, for reasons. One of the reasons is the overall balance of the blog and that I’ve not written about creativity in recent days. One is that I had a ‘ping’ moment and the idea popped into my head. Several others popped up too, and I picked this one because it seemed the strongest, and the easiest to work into a blog shape. The others I may come back to when I’ve had more time to think about them. (The short answer to that question is ‘practice’ but it also helps not to be overly afraid of getting things wrong.)
In this age of information overload, ideas are seldom in short supply. Good ideas are rarer, and harder to spot amidst the noise. We all have ideas. It’s not having ideas that sets a creative person apart. It’s noticing the ideas and working out which ones to explore and take seriously. It’s allowing the space to go from one idea to other ideas, and selecting, constantly for what could work and the context in which it would work. With all due reference to Les Barker, Guide Cats for the Blind make an excellent verse, but a dreadful reality.