On “Where do you get your ideas from?”

If you would ever like to divest yourself of hero worship for creative types, look at their responses to the question “Where do you get your ideas from?” This cure is a little stale now as somewhere along the way somebody must have realized how insufferable they sounded and there are now thoughtful answers to this question, but I’m sure you can still find some sneering ones without too much trouble. The problem is that this question seems to sit at the intersection of a few forces that steer otherwise well-meaning people away from honest or helpful answers. First, the question implies that you are, in fact, A Creative Person™ and that your opinion is sought after, so there’s a bit of ego at play. Second, if you are, in fact, A Creative Person™ whose opinion is sought after, you likely hear this question a lot, so exasperation is likely to set in even for the most stoic or well-meaning of talents. Finally, as someone who is, in fact, A Creative Person™ whose opinion is currently being sought after, the expectation is that you would at least have the basics of your craft in hand, and what could be more fundamental than ideas, and what do you mean you don’t know where the ideas come from I hate you and hope you die! That is, the person being asked may not know, or may have an answer so idiosyncratic as to be less helpful than “I don’t know.” Even before we acknowledge that this isn’t an especially well formed question, all the incentives are aligned against an honest, straightforward answer. I’d like to share some thoughts on the question, its answer, and how people generally think about creativity.

What are you talking about?

What do we mean when we ask the question “Where do you get your ideas from?” Well, it’s obvious isn’t it? We’re looking for the prime mover, the answer to a bank page, a pitch that will seduce a publisher/distributor/producer, a hook that a listener can’t get out of their heads, the inspiration that gives you all the right words and reduces the job to putting them down one after the other, you know, ideas. The problem is that these are very different things. The ability to confront a blank page is as much a matter of work ethic and an understanding of grammar or the ability to draw fundamental shapes as it is creativity. A pitch is a marketing device if anything and implies some underlying object (even if you haven’t figured that part out yet) of which just an enticing glance is given. The hook, like the amorphous inspiration, assumes that there is no creativity beyond the high concept and that you basically slap a drum track or some prepositions on and get ready for release. These are all different problems at different stages, and doesn’t even cover the people who just want to see the making of documentary.

There’s no ironclad rule that says there are general elegant solutions that encompass all variations of this question. Furthermore, there are no guarantees that someone who is, in fact, A Creative Person™ is equipped or inclined to generalize their instances of creative thought into principles that encapsulate the other cases. At its core, the question deals with a problem at some point in a creative endeavor and has created two categories ‘not creative’ (things I have done) and ‘creative’ (things I haven’t done/feel I can’t do). The creative category becomes overvalued because of its scarcity and the not creative category is undervalued because of its abundance. Anyone who has been consulted as a subject matter expert (even if it’s just making a cup of tea), presented the most trivial of solutions, and then been heralded as a saviour will have encountered this. As outside observers we know that what this aspiring creator is really looking for is something they already have inside themselves, but we lose this perspective when it applies to our own case.

Who are you to say all this?

I am not, in fact,  A Creative Person™. I know this because I found it out in a bar during a conversation with a stranger. She was an artist (primarily sketches), and her process involved something like banging two live chickens together to the rhythm of Slavic folk tunes played by a mad piper while dressed in yeti hair followed by an invocation to the muses in a tongue that only they can understand. I offered that I find the ability to draw very admirable since I used to do it quite a bit when I was in school but I have always been frustrated by the fact I could never make the shapes and forms I wanted to. I added that it was this frustration that tended to drive me to my own creative outlets such as photography since I felt that I had to take the world as given and found satisfaction in using the technology to shape it the way I saw it. “Well that’s not real creativity!” And so the matter was settled. Now it is likely that someone who knows a little of my biography might protest and say “For heaven’s sake you worked in film! On stuff that was actually popular and lots of people have seen!” Yes that, and any other number of examples, but I happen to think all of them boil down to a similar problem solving process to the photography example, and we already know that’s simply not real creativity.

The silliness of the conversation aside, there seems to be a certain presumptuousness in writing an article like this. I have been asked where I get my ideas from, but generally the assumption is that some kind of essay on the topic should only come from someone with some credentials. I have none, but then, I was under the impression the question was about ideas instead of fame. One advantage to being nobody of consequence is that there is the least possible risk of having superhuman abilities attributed to me. Despite myself, I think some talents just have the magical ability to make work easy, or have internalized enough of their process to make it automatic, or otherwise have some black box that produces stupendous results. This thinking brings us back into territory better suited to the ritual with the chickens above. More importantly, if we’re concerned about becoming famous the advice is totally different than if we’re concerned about achieving particular creative outcomes. Some mute inglorious Milton has less to offer us on the subject now than he might have, so now seems as good of time as any to tackle the subject and I can do so without any fear of notoriety getting in the way. And what if my ideas suck? Then you’re even further behind than you thought and should attend to the next passages closely.

Initial ideas and settings

Is there an idea from which all other inspiration can flow? If the creative challenge is getting started, then yes, an exciting idea can have value over and above its merits as a starting point. In my own case, this is because it creates boundaries and restrictions I can kick against to get some momentum (again, creativity as problem solving), but for others it may simply be the catalyst that gets them into a state of playfulness where their imagination can take them where they go. Of course, for this subset of people we have an answer to the question “I get my ideas from the setting.” Unless you happen to fall into the subset of people for whom the only block is an initial idea, it is fairly easy to establish how an initial idea or high concept won’t get you very far. Here is an  initial idea that is behind some of the most well known and best selling stories you can think of: The dead come back. Return when you have your blockbuster and feel free to cut me in on a percentage.

Chances are this idea offered relatively little inspiration, and what inspiration it did provide was probably cliché. And yet this idea has animated everything from Dawn of the Dead, Frankenstein, Osiris, Dracula, the gospels, The Crow, The Walking Dead, A Christmas Carol, Orpheus, Poltergeist, Ghostbusters, and thousands more. It is impossible to say that this idea hasn’t resulted in good creative works (and I’ve limited myself to stories), but this is hardly the breakthrough anyone is looking for. One might object “But these stories aren’t just about the dead coming back” and I would agree, but I don’t think adjusting the example is going to yield some fountain of inspiration. Embedded in the objection is thought that there is another idea that makes these stories ‘work.’ This is likely true and should reinforce how unimportant ‘one perfect idea’ really is. Let’s say we want to steer our story towards a genre, what can we add to our initial idea of the dead coming back (you might want to try some of your own):

  • Family is mourning their recently departed grandfather, unaware of the medical staff running to an emergency elsewhere in the hospital. Young child, coming back from getting a candy bar down the hall passes by the room with the death bed, looks overjoyed at something off camera, offering it his candy and says “Grandpa! Would you like a piece?” (Domestic drama. Apparently this is very similar to something that happens in The Walking Dead: The New Frontier so… take 2)
    • Child on a farm has lost his beloved pet dog and is in the process of tearfully burying it. The child takes a moment for one last look at the dog in the grave before continuing, but his expression turns to surprise when he sees the dog’s tail start wagging, and then joy to see his dog is alive and barking, and jumping up to see him. He reaches down and then… (Domestic drama.)
  • The President/Prime Minister is visiting wounded soldiers in a remote location. A dead soldier comes bursting in from the other room lunging after the leader, impervious to the efforts of the guards. (Action)
  • The reanimated body of a woman hires a detective to investigate her own murder. (Detective. If she lights up the room, Noire)
  • A man is using a public restroom during (unknown to him) the outbreak of a zombie apocalypse. He feels a shudder from the next stall then suddenly moaning, groaning and erratic movement. It seems to pass until his neighbour’s disruptions come back with even more violence. (Comedy)

These don’t just limit themselves to the dead coming back but are variations specifically on zombies (except, perhaps, the detective story depending on whether or not you think zombies should be mindless). I’m not especially attached to any of these ideas except maybe the last one, and it is a little uncomfortable to share raw material like this in a public post, but since I am not, in fact, A Creative Person™, I don’t have the luxury of chopping the heads off ideas that displease me at first sight. Reservations aside, even the worst of these is more exciting to me than the generic ‘the dead come back to life.’ What this should illustrate is that we at least need idea plus another idea, and in all likelihood it’s a big series of ideas that we need, none of which have any special significance.

A stream of ideas

It is not reassuring to go searching for one idea to solve a creative block and find out you actually need a series, but this should be a liberating realization. Any single idea is no longer burdened with the success of the entire work and so the stakes are much lower. If the entire project hinges on the idea ‘the dead come back’ then the overall enthusiasm for the project is going to be low. This may be where the disconnect between authors’ answers of “ideas are everywhere” and the audience’s perception that they’re hard to come by occurs. If you are accustomed to culling ideas that don’t immediately implement themselves, then the daily censorship of ideas is likely going to pass by unnoticed. If we don’t internalize the suppression of ideas against an impossible standard, we will be more likely to notice them when they come.

The problem with the examples above is that while they may tickle a certain interest, they mostly are scenes rather than full works. Simply generating a lot of scenes in hopes that some subset can be strung together is inefficient and is going to be suited only to ‘one scene after another’ stories. While it’s probably not advisable that someone starting from “Where do you get your ideas from?” to tackle something like their own Finnegan’s Wake, it’s not especially helpful to work on things that don’t interest you either. What these are best seen as are exercises to get us out of the habit of dismissing things out of hand and more into a state of playfulness where making things up is an end in itself. Even then, we still need to contend with the fact that little vignettes into these imaginary worlds do not resemble the kind of finished product we were hoping for from the initial question, and so we might want to learn how to manipulate or structure our nascent stream of ideas.

I suspect the idea of ‘not real creativity’ probably starts at the idea of putting structure around ideas, so if you are doubtful about this step, it might be a good idea to look at some after action reports (AAR) on strategy wargame forums, or RP content for certain RPGs. Games are structured, and wargames especially so, but this has not stopped people from writing stories of Douglas McArthur, the American Caesar, or the licentious, violent, Machiavellian saga of the House of Rose. The aim here is to direct your energies towards a particular train of thought rather than just collect random pieces. Again, I view a lot of these things as problem solving, so I already have a very structured way of thinking about it, but we’ll see how this can be adapted to other ways of thinking. Usually I like to ask questions like “Why?” “Then what?” “Who?” or if I’m in a rather nasty mood “So what?” “Who is this jerk?” “Why should I care?” Let’s go back to ‘the dead come back.’

  • Why are the dead coming back?
    • They like it here more than the afterlife
    • Angels and demons went on strike
    • They feel the mortal world needs their help

These invite their own questions. How are the dead coming back to life? Zombies, ghosts, vampires, skeletons, plain old ordinary people? Were the angels and demons always uinionized? Why hasn’t this happened before? Maybe it did and all those stories of resurrection we’ve heard were cases where that happened and it has caused so much trouble on Earth with new religions being formed that they do everything they can to avoid it. I personally am partial to the idea of using ghosts for the 3rd idea because it inverts the old trope of ghosts having ‘unfinished business’ and instead are so dismayed by what they’ve heard going on here they need to sort things out. You may notice some themes coming up or ‘real world things the story might be about’ hiding underneath. These aren’t deliberate, but it’s hard to deny they’re there once you see them. Hang on to those, they’ll come up later.

It’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t an exercise in worldbuilding. Personally, I only think you should come up with enough background or motivation for what you are portraying in so far as you find it useful. You may want to have a bit of a story for that person in the painting, and maybe it’s useful for you to know that your main character is a single mom even if it never comes up in the short story. But as in life character is demonstrated in unusual and unexpected ways. I have a very senior coworker who is genuinely feared by people outside my department and who is a beloved mentor to three other people I know and has been very congenial and invested in my development. At another job there was a gentle, positive, vegan, sweetheart who had been working there for a while but became violently angry when she saw a knife had been put away in such a way someone could get hurt. You may never have to portray how a character behaves when their order gets messed up at a coffee shop, but it will likely get you thinking about how they behave in other situations.

Since I have a more systematic way of approaching these kinds of questions, it makes sense that the examples above tend to follow a thread one after the other. If you are, in fact, A Creative Person™ this may not be the way your mind works. Let’s go back to the scenes above and see how the approach can work in a slightly less linear approach. For the boy and his dog, why are domesticated animals coming back from the dead? Because it is frightening to have loved ones turn on you. If the source of the zombie outbreak isn’t explained, you don’t really need to concoct some reason yourself, but the idea that ‘things that were once friendly to us are now hostile’ can inform quite a bit of the story. Wild animals don’t come back because we’re already afraid of wild animals and they can already cause us harm. Friends, relatives and pets do come back. Living friends and relatives may also turn on us only through the pressure of the situation. All more or less standard tropes of the genre, but a pretty clear decision rule that results in consistency (pets do not rise from the dead at only dramatically appropriate moments for example). The detective doesn’t have a sex listed. Are they a man or a woman? Does the society even conceive of categories beyond the two? Is the detective less respected because she’s a woman? Is this why client chose her? Do the dead normally ask for independent investigation into their own murders or is this a special case? There are obvious questions for a more linear approach like “What happens next?”, “Whodunit?” or what have you, but there really isn’t that much to this story yet beyond a high concept and so you can pull them from anywhere (are necromancers mob bosses? Seems an obvious choice, but if you were dead wouldn’t you like to come back? What if necromancers are doing works of charity?). However you choose to work, a lot of this simply boils down to saying to yourself “tell me more…”

Choosing the right ideas

We might have taken some of the pressure off for individual ideas, and we may have a few different prompts to direct the flow of ideas, but there is no assurance that any of this is easy to do. Like anything, practice will make it easier to get into a playful state that lets you start to roll off ideas one after another. Sometimes it’s also just an acceptance that some of it is going to be bad, getting it out and moving on. Even asking why something is a bad idea might invite an answer that is itself a good idea (“And then the main character wakes up and it was all a dream.” Lame. “And he’s arrested because of the contents of the dream.” Maybe there’s something we can work with there). A collection of ideas is not the finished work that is implied in the correct answer to “Where do you get your ideas from?” and at some point we need to decide what ideas are worth following and fit in.

Creative works are about something. It may not be consciously felt, or it may be a remarkably trivial subject, but there is something that motivated that particular work. I tend to find that the ideas that excite me or interest me can ultimately be traced back to some kind of subject or concern that have caught my attention, even if I discover it long after the fact. For example, I rather like the idea that the dead are coming back because they prefer existence on Earth to whatever lies beyond. Why does this interest me? I suppose because it seems the most extreme possible extension of the concern that the previous generation is continuing to burden the next one through deficits, Brexit, underinvesting in education and infrastructure, etc. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse *bam* “Nah, we prefer it here. Think we’ll stay. Forever.” I’m also attracted to this idea because I love the idea that all previous generations had a choice and for some reason this is the one that decided to go back because of boredom. It taps into another  concern that we’re amusing ourselves to death and are losing the ability and inclination to engage with long term projects that are to our benefit. Plus, there’s something great about seeing someone arrive at heaven, see that there’s only 2 bars of mobile reception and peace out.

The important thing here is that the ‘what is this about’ element should never appear as a sledgehammer to beat you over the head with. If you absolutely must get it out of your system, give a character a monologue about everything that is wrong in society, then cut it out and put it a blog. This isn’t limited to narrative either. I’m sure you can imagine a modern reimagining of Sisyphus for amusement with two further prompts ‘first year art project’ and ‘sly ribbing of guilty pleasures’ to get the idea. This is a two way street. Once I started thinking about why the idea attracted me my mind wandered to the thickening of borders (I told you, I am not, in fact, A Creative Person™). What if the afterlife was no longer taking immigrants because we’re not sending them our best? The dilemma I face with this one is that now that I know it’s about immigration I need to work at throwing away the cheap ‘messages’ and instead focus on interesting implications (Bad: “God is just like Trump. I don’t think anyone was expecting that.” Cute, will get an applause from people who want to focus on the Old Testament, clever in a way but feels like pandering. Better: “There has been a slow and steady thickening of the border between the mundane and the supernatural which is why we don’t have miracles any more.” I like this because it makes things more complicated and there are more things to explore and do in this setting, while making the God emperor the, well, God Emperor doesn’t get me as much).

This is ultimately what people are talking about when they say that ideas are everywhere. They come from you and your interests. You simply have to take an interest in the world around you. This means reading, looking at art, looking at comics, watching movies, playing games, and actively doing it. Grand Theft Auto V has a lot of fun bits. Why did I find them fun? Why do I find them fun in a way I don’t find Grand Theft Auto III as fun? When people say they’ve become more politically active, does this mean they just talk about the federal level more often or do they know who the mayor is and the composition of the city council? To be perfectly honest, a lot of the time when I write something I am just trying to figure it out. I may never post it or even look at it again, but there was something bugging me, I got it out of my system, and I could move on to something else that I found interesting.

One last thing that drives me, and I think this is a useful guide in general, is that I do genuinely enjoy entertaining people. If I can spin a good yarn, tell a good joke, or otherwise delight someone I get tremendous pleasure from that. As a result whenever I have a game idea I tend to go out and ‘pitch’ it to some strangers. I know I’ve done well if the person I am talking to has a smile on their face that they can’t help and I live to see that reaction. This is almost a non-starter for some people because social interaction isn’t high on the list of skills or priorities, but presumably you’re writing for someone and it’s helpful to have friends along the way for mutual support. Since you’re already taking an interest in things, why not take an interest in the most interesting thing: people. It’s not like you’re trying to sell them something, you are trying to amuse them.

“But what if they steal my ideas?” This is the kind of thinking that has hopefully left us since we realize that an individual idea doesn’t matter very much. Furthermore, what matters to you won’t matter in the same way to the audience. The same way that your own work won’t be a copy of all the material you read before, anyone who hears your pitch and is inspired by it is going to bring their own experience and talent to bear. Maybe it will be better than yours (assuming against the far more likely case that they are working on their own ideas), but then, you would never have made what they did anyway.

If it helps to imagine idea generation as a process think of it this way: We have a series of interests and concerns that are usually the raw material for our creative work. These can be grand themes like concerns about spiritual fulfillment, or immediate needs like needing a glass of water. Usually these concerns show up in disguise as “What if X happened?” or “Wouldn’t it be interesting if X?” The first step is to learn to recognize them and get in the habit of acknowledging that we are throwing away potentially useful material every time we dismiss them as distraction or ‘not good enough.’ Having recognized our ability to generate ideas, we can direct our imagining by probing areas we find most promising. Maybe none of the background noise in your head was that interesting. What’s your favourite genre? What haven’t you seen in it yet? What’s your least favourite genre? How would you improve it? The aim here is to focus our attention to turn it into a creative work. We may not need to formally select ideas that we’re most happy with, but recognizing what’s behind them will allow us to shape the finished product around them, and let the most interesting parts of what we’re doing shine.

It’d be nice if this was all constant and automatic, but it usually isn’t. Sitting down and doing the work (again, acknowledging that when we aren’t feeling in the mood we’ll probably need to go through some bad ideas) is a hard but important way to start things off. Sometimes when the work has already been underway, an interruption in routine is needed. This is where going for a walk or taking a bath or any of the other ‘side projects’ come in. It’s really important to be clear what is being done here (you are not slacking off, and be honest with yourself when doing this), but sometimes if you have committed yourself to an unproductive train of thought, you need to disrupt the routine and let your mind wander. Your concerns will come back to you and you will return to that more playful state as you do something else until a new path presents itself. It may not even be the magic solution you were looking for, just another perspective that leads you down a path that leads you down another path that brushes alongside something that might be a solution. It’d be great if ideas came when we needed them, but often we need to clarify things for ourselves, and the false positives are just chances for us to work things out. This is a way of working that allows us to make the most of what we have at a given time, rather than just for a miracle to occur.

Building the work

The business of making a work out of the raw material of ideas is much more than idea generation itself. If it’s a written work then you need to understand grammar, pacing, characterization, and all the other elements that go into a good novel or a short story. Visual works will need to work with form, colour, composition, and the like to convey the idea. A game needs systems built and ways to convey an idea without reducing the player to a passive observer. Mastery of your craft will allow you to present your idea in the best possible way and create something special.

That’s the big mistake behind “Where do your ideas come from?” Getting a good idea does not bring you any closer to the implementation of an idea, and people only ever get to see the implementation. But style and even the basics are only ever going to be internalized through practice, and you need something to practice on. If you want to see style without a worthwhile idea behind it, feel free to watch as many commercials as you’d like. Excellent craftsmanship, but commercials that attempt to present any serious message tend to be the rightful objects of derision (Pepsi is not the official pop of #TheResistance). We really are hungry for good ideas and worthwhile topics, and so we’re willing to put up with imperfect presentation. Shakespeare at high school is still pretty good theatre.

Getting ideas may not be the hard part, but they do hopefully make the hard part easier to work with. I am always delighted to see something with interesting ideas behind it, as much as I am interested in exploring those ideas myself. The best ones seem to demand expression and provide enough motivation to keep going through. I can’t offer anything on the particulars on implementation, but if you ever happen to find me in a bar and you’ve got a good idea, I’d really love to hear it. I like smiling despite myself.