Where Do Ideas Come From?

Anyone who writes or wishes to write inevitably asks or is asked this question at some point: Where do your ideas come from? For the person who assumes he or she is uncreative (you know who you are) the notion that anyone “thinks up” plots and settings and characters from thin air is nearly inconceivable. And even as my brain teems with characters and plotlines and settings and title ideas, I still occasionally run across an ultracreative movie (think Inception), TV show (hello, Breaking Bad), or book (The Thirteenth Tale comes to mind) and think “Who thinks of these things?” (This question also arises when my husband, a compulsive band name generator, says, without preamble, something like “Problem Attic.”)

So where do ideas come from? Naturally, I can’t speak to the experiences of others, but in my own creative life, my ideas usually come when I am doing some sort of physical activity that doesn’t involve deep thinking. Of the half a dozen or so writing projects I currently have percolating in my mind and on the page (some still just a note scribbled here or there) nearly all of them came at a moment of mental clarity brought on by physical exertion of some kind. Just one came from something someone said.

What was I doing when the rest of them come to me? Usually driving. Driving is just the sort of passive physical activity that, in me, breeds creativity. And it can’t be driving just anywhere. No, no. My ideas come on the expressway, usually on I-96 between my home in Lansing and my office in Grand Rapids (and before you ask, no, I don’t make that commute every day–just once a week). The reason they occur on that stretch of road most often? Simple: that’s where I’m most often driving! There’s nothing magical about that particular 50 or 60 miles of concrete. I’ve had plenty of ideas pop up on I-127, M-115, M-31, and various other highways. But when you have a commute that you make regularly, you don’t have to think about it. You keep your eyes open for brake lights ahead and deer to your right and left, and you’re golden! No more thought is required, which gives your mind space to breathe and flex.

I’ve had a novel idea while hiking (that largely mindless process of plodding, plodding, plodding), written much of a poem while stirring something on the stove, and I recently plotted out an entire short story while running. Hiking and running are certainly more physical than driving or stirring, but they require just as little conscious thought to accomplish, and, in fact, are often things that you can get through easier if your mind is distracted from your aching joints and the sweat trickling down your back. I had the idea for this blog post while cutting out pictures of little coffee cups from a java jacket to add to a collage in my office. Not thinking, just letting my kindergarten scissors training kick in (“Move the paper, not the scissors!”).

So next time you’re feeling uncreative, maybe what you need is some good old fashioned mindless physical labor to get the juices flowing.

Just watch out for deer.

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