Where Do Ideas Come From?

I’ve been thinking lately about where ideas come from. They often seem to blip into your head out of nowhere. And that feels very random. Do you just have to trust to luck for your creativity?

I’m pretty sure the answer is no. Creativity is not about luck. There seem to be three common elements for a creative leap to happen. And you have control over all of them. 

Just Showing Up

A long time ago, somebody told me that “90% of life is just showing up.” 

That doesn’t mean just showing up and doing nothing. It means showing up on a regular schedule and putting in the effort. 

For a novelist, it means writing every day, whether you feel like it or not. Most professional writers have a quota. It might be a time quota or it might be a word-count quota. But they put their butt in the chair every day and write. 

Creativity is about solving problems in new and original ways. You can’t be creative if you don’t know what the problem is. And you learn the problem intimately when you show up every day and do battle with it. Even if you don’t solve it instantly, you learn what the problem actually is.

Filling the Well

Creativity often happens after you’ve spent a lot of time reading other people’s work. If you’re a scientist, that means reading the papers other scientists have written. If you’re a novelist, it means reading other people’s novels. 

Novelists often call this “filling the well.” You’re seeing how other people have solved the same problems you’re tackling. 

Some writers worry that they’ll wreck their creativity by reading other writers’ work. They’re afraid that somehow, this will lead them into Cliche City. Or worse, into plagiarism. 

That won’t happen. Reading other people’s work will teach you what the cliches are. If you read all the cliches enough times, you’ll hate them too much to ever write them. 

As for plagiarism, you can avoid that easily by not using other writers’ words. Use your own words, and string them together into your own sentences and paragraphs. 

It’s fine to get ideas from other writers. In fact, most ideas are variations on other ideas. 

My rule of thumb is that 1 + 1 = 3.  

What that means is that I often take ideas from a couple of sources and then add something new to the mix that’s my own. And the whole is more than the sum of the sources. 

As your creativity develops, you’ll sometimes find that 1 + 1 = 7. 

Down Time

Most of my really creative ideas come at 3 AM. Or in the shower. Or while I’m driving. Or talking to a friend. Or out on a walk. Or or or. 

The creative spark almost always comes when you’re not trying to force it out at your desk. 

So you need down time, when you’re not working. When your brilliant subconscious can pop that clever new idea into your brain. And it will feel like it came out of the blue. 

You Made It Happen

But it’s not really out of the blue. You did what you needed to make it happen: 

  • You spent hours at your desk trying to tackle the problem and failing and trying again and failing.  
  • You spent more hours reading what other people have done. 
  • You gave your conscious mind some down time, so your subconscious mind could solve the problem.

And that’s where ideas some from. Do your part, and the ideas will come. 

Expect them when you least expect them. 

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Author: Randy Ingermanson