Where Do Ideas Come From?

Recently, I was lucky enough to speak to some middle school students about writing (specifically High Tech Middle Media Arts). The experience was exhilarating. The kids really knew their stuff, asking a ton of good questions. Then one came up that I hadn’t considered: Where do your ideas come from? Sensible query, especially from a kid’s point of view. After all, they are required, by force of curriculum, to generate creative ideas on the spot.

My answer in class was a knee jerk reaction. Given some time to think, I’ve come up with a laundry list of places that ideas come from. Mostly it’s a set of connections. One thing relates to another and then bang. Idea. I’ve started a book based on the results of a presidential election. (Not even a political thriller. The book was about monsters.) Another idea came from a Poly Sci class in High School. One of my best ideas sprang up while watching an episode of Scooby Doo.

Mostly the idea of a story starts as a “what if” scenario. I find a detail from some article or snippet of a commercial and then think, what would happen if…? You need to give your mind time to daydream, otherwise the ideas (the good ones at least) won’t come.

So where do your ideas come from?

Tim Kane

Creative Starvation

I recently read an article on io9 about how the body can survive up to 70 days without food. It goes through several stages where the body cannibalizes muscle and bone to keep the brain alive. As a writer, I wondered if this process could happen creatively.

Somehow dying creativity made me think of Hemingway and his shotgun.

I just exited a two month funk. I had just finished edits on a manuscript, but wasn’t due to hear from my agent for a while. (I’m a deadline person. Without one, I’m lost.) I worked up a new novel idea, but the routine of churning out pages each day wasn’t there. I felt starved.

Here’s how I think creative starvation might work on anyone art-minded.

1-2 days after finishing a project
You feel that high that seems to never go away. It’s like creative adrenaline. You feel pumped.

3-7 days after finishing a project
This is the hot spot. You either start something new (I mean just dive in) or you don’t. In physical starvation, the brain takes 25% of the body’s energy. In creative types, imagination takes the largest share. During this time, it’s spinning out of control because it doesn’t have a clear direction. It’s a wet paintbrush searching for a canvas.

1-3 weeks after finishing a project
This is when your imagination starts to cannibalize other ideas. You might find the novel you’re reading an incredible inspiration. Maybe you could mimic it somehow. Or perhaps you dive into blog writing. You convince yourself that it’s also creative and just the same as fiction writing. Yet all these endeavors further drain and weaken your creative spirit.

Onward past 3 weeks
There are a few options here. Unless a deadline or some event propels you back into writing, your imagination might perish. Without the fresh nourishment of routine and a clear project to work on, it starves.

Treatment: Take one chair. Apply butt. Type.

That’s it. Even if garbage comes it. Because it probably will. You need to type. Wake up the creative muse that’s comatose inside you.

Write on.

Tim Kane

When Do You Let Your Creative Pooch Off the Leash?

Animal strokes ... Leonardo da Vinci's Studies of a dog's paw, about 1485. Photograph: The National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Where do you go to dream up that killer plot twist? I own a restless mind, and like a puppy scrounging for a toy, it’s always off on an adventure somewhere. During my working hours I reign it in, focusing on the task at hand. Oddly, I have a structured and logical side, and I think this takes control in my school situations. Yet when I take off the dog chain and let it loose, my inner puppy romps all over creation.

Over the years, I’ve learned to channel this rampaging creative force. Direct it toward solving difficult writing problems that stymie my logical side. Usually, what I do is mull over a problem, maybe read a few pages of my manuscript in progress and then give my brain time to work.

What works best is showers. I’m stuck there for fifteen minutes. I can’t write, so my left-brain can’t ruin things by trying to put it all into words. Usually when I emerge, a soppy mess, I rush to a pad of paper and jot the whole thing down in one mind dump. So far this technique has never failed me.

I also find that driving produces the same results for the same reason. I can’t write. This leaves my mind free to explore the permieter of the yard inside my head, sniffing and digging the dirt. I often mind myself stopping in a parking lot and unloading on whatever scrap of paper I have. If you ever see me parked and writing, don’t come near. I’m working.

One time, on a drive to Disneyland, there was nowhere to pull over. Thank goodness my phone has a record feature. I must have put down a dozen tiny recordings. Some no more than a few words. My wife must have thought me insane. At least I kept my eyes on the road.

I used to settle in coffee houses for the same effect. Though with the rise of Starbucks, most independent java joints have vanished. Plus I brew my own killer cups at home these days.

So what about you? Where do you let your creative pooch off the leash? Does the dog deliver the goods, fetching back trinkets of character or plot for you to use?

Tim Kane