How do you get your ideas? This is the question that all artists dread.
I'm not talking about executing on an idea. This is mainly about leveraging hard work and years of experience in order to transmute ideas into shareable forms. This is usually what writers, actors, cartoonists, and whoever talk about when they answer this question.
And it is an important truth; creative activities take work. They require long hours and dedication and this fact should not be underplayed.
But what I'm talking about is the spark - that moment of inspiration. That singular spark when the essence of an idea comes upon you and if it's the right kind of idea, leads you into action.
I think a lot of creative people know where ideas come from but they don't want to talk about it or acknowledge it. Sometimes they fear talking about it. It seems so mysterious that they fear talking will make it go away but this is not the case. Talking about it is not why it ceases to work.
What is the answer to the initial question? Where do ideas come from?
Ideas come from the beam.
When I started out making things, I thought of inspiration as some sort of inner TV or inner radio. It was something I sometimes got the frequency of and then ideas appeared and I got to work.
But invariably the frequency changed and I no longer got the channel. Until mysteriously, after some indeterminate amount of time and for seemingly no reason, in particular, I would find the channel again. Truly inspirational ideas were on the menu again.
Now, instead of inner TV, I think of it as "the beam". The beam never turns off. It's me that turns on and off.
The beam is always on.
You can only experience the full benefits of the beam when you're on. When you're off, you're still under the beam but all the truly inspired ideas you would want just miss you. You can't catch them.
In other words, the beam never turns off, you do.
Sometimes you're not quite fully off. So when you have a flicker of "on-ness" to you, you can get half of an idea... a piece of it.
And with your skills, experience, and taste you fill in the other half and make it a whole idea. But it can be truly hard to make the other half materialize in a satisfying way.
Often when you complete the second half, you can feel like there was a better way forward. A weird self-doubting haunted feel about the idea itself lurks about. It never feels right.
Yes. Absolutely yes. This is especially true if you have some creative experience. After some years of creative activity, you can absolutely make good ideas without the beam. Sometimes even great ones.
Let me just define what I think the difference is between good ideas and great ideas - most especially within the realm of creative activities.
It has been said before, but art is often about surprise. Surprise is the cornerstone of many creative endeavors.
Would you rather read a story with surprising twists or one where all the events of the story were exactly what you expected?
Would you prefer to hear a joke that has a solidly funny but predictable punchline or would you rather be surprised by a hilarious punchline?
The element of surprise, not to be confused with its cousin shock, brings an element of freshness to what you're doing. It's this newness that engages people.
For me, a good idea is one that surprises your audience in some fundamental way. A great idea is one that surprises you and your audience.
With experience, you can manufacture good ideas most any time but without inspiration, it's truly hard to get a great idea. To get an idea that surprises you.
These kinds of ideas are the magic ones and it's rare to produce them through an applied working ethic and discipline alone.
The execution to bring an idea to life requires hard work and craft but the spark itself should not. It should come without resistance.
Even a rank amateur can catch a great idea from time to time but they would, in many instances, lack the craft and experience to do justice to the full potential of the idea.
For the beam to work your switch must be in the "on" position where everything just flows naturally. This is how I go about trying to get myself aligned for receiving ideas.
I start to play, to explore options without judgment.
Sometimes that means moving out of my comfort zone, out of what I usually am interested in, to find new possibilities and sometimes not. Even within very familiar territory, there are little nooks and crannies full of treasure, they may just be a little harder to get to.
I write down the ideas that come to me, even the bad ones, otherwise you're driving with the brakes on.
Driving with the brakes on is what I call it when you try to be the creator and editor at the same time. Now is not the time to assess things.
Assessment drives you into a more pragmatic straight ahead mindset that is counter to the flexible lateral mindset you need for receiving ideas.
I had a realization one day that every time I had a great idea, the one right before it was a bad idea. If I had stopped to judge the bad idea, the great idea would not have appeared.
Ideas come in a string and you should not interrupt the flow. Don't be afraid, just keep playing.
If you try and come up blank, well just pack it in for the day, get a good night of sleep, and have at it the next day. Stay relaxed and the ideas will come.
You can view what I've said as being extremely esoteric or simply as a creative metaphor. Either way, I hope that this essay somehow helps you to bring ideas into your life and the world.
Good luck, Scott.
PS. Remember to use what the beam gives you because otherwise, eventually, someone else will see it and bring that idea to life.
And the more ideas you let languish in your cerebral landscape, the more likely it is that the beam will become harder and harder to find until one day you'll swear that it never existed.
And you don't ever want that day to come.