Mental Kitchen

How to Hatch a Creative Idea

I stumbled across the word Ideation and was immediately struck by the power of the concept. Here is a word about what all artists struggle with: generating creative ideas.

In every interview with every writer, painter, musician, you name it, the interviewer always asks: “Where do your ideas come from?” Most  people can’t really say. And for many of us, we think that these privileged “artists” live in a different world — a sort of magical idea-land

As I researched the word “ideation” it kept circling a corporate orbit. Mostly about think tanks generating usable ideas. What I wanted to know was how the individual artists can create their own ideas.

Often I get stuck in production mode, thinking about the finish line. I want everything I create to have a purpose. But setting off too early on the production trail limits the possible breadth of your original idea. 

Open Up to Imagination

Christine Nishiyama in “Finding Ideas + Doing the Work” recommends that we draw for the sake of drawing. She puts all her ideas into a sketchbook. “It’s a place to draw for no reason, goal, or purpose, other than just to draw. Our sketchbook opens up endless possibilities, and allows us to slow down and get off the hamster wheel of production.”

Even if you are a writer or musician, just getting ideas down on paper can help. I often scribble notes the moment they pop into my head. When asked where he gets his ideas, writer R. L. Stine talks about an idea store. One department is imagination.

Mr. Stine recalled walking in New York City’s Riverside Park and a series of words flashed across his brain: “Say cheese and die.” He imagined a camera that took pictures of only the bad things that happen in the future. This was the seed for his novel Say Cheese and Die!

The important thing is to not judge these notions that blip across our mental radar screen. Jot them down. Sometimes they lead to bigger and better projects and sometimes they lie in wait for the right circumstances. 

Whenever the topic of ideas comes up, I often drift back to Lennon and McCartney. The two often wrote half songs, relying on the other to fill in the missing pieces. A good example is “I’ve Got A Feeling” which started as a love song by Paul. Then Lennon fleshed it out with something originally titled “Everybody Had A Hard Year,” originally demoed during the White Album sessions.

Sometimes an idea we scribble down doesn’t find its home until years later. But we need to have the freedom to not chain these notions to a finished production right after they’re hatched. 

Observe

Pulling from our environment can be another way to generate ideas. For R. L. Stine, this is the second department in his Idea Store that he called experience. But that word can lead to the wrong conclusions. So often people tell writers to “write what you know”. But I often write horror and sci-fi, and I’ve never been stalked by a killer fungus or flown to other planets. 

Experience means drawing from what you see and hear around you and then letting your imagination ask the question: What if…?

Mr. Stine once saw a family sending their ten-year old son on a solo flight at the airport. The parents pressed a white envelope into the boy’s hands moments before he stepped on the plane. This is where the what if moment happens. Mr. Stine thought: “What if the kid boarded the plane, and while in the air opened an envelope that read: We are not your parents?”

It’s so easy to confuse just being aware of our surroundings with actual observing. A quote from Sherlock Holmes “A Scandal in Bohemia” has always stuck in my mind. In this scene, Holmes is schooling Watson on the difference between seeing and observing:

Holmes: “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”

Watson: “Frequently.”

“How often?”

“Well, some hundreds of times.”

“Then how many are there?”

“How many? I don’t know.”

“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

The human brain is able to process 11 million bits of information per second. Yet our conscious mind will only parse 40-50 bits. So the point of what Holmes is saying isn’t to start cataloguing the number of steps or windows or other banal details in our lives. That would be observing less. Instead, we need to be on the hunt for inspiration. That “What If” moment.

Personal Identity

We can use our own life as the seed to germinate new ideas. Writer David Sedaris has made an artform of transforming his diary entries into comedic bits. He says he feels privileged to be a writer, adding: “Normal people, something bad happens to them and there’s nothing they can do with it except feel bad or complain or press charges.”

R. L. Stine also talks about how to mine your childhood to generate fresh ideas. “Hideous” porcelain gnomes lived on his front lawn growing up. This memory triggered a book about these gnomes coming to life at night. 

The lesson we can take away from these other artists isn’t that they’re part of some privileged club. Creating ideas is nothing more than utilizing a mental muscle. As with any new exercise, we need practice and discipline to get better. The common thread with these creators was they were all in tune with their inner voice. When an idea popped up, they wrote it down. 

Start today. Allow yourself to wander and scribble and explore. Ideas don’t hatch with us staring at them. 

Tim Kane

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