Monthly Archives: June 2010

>How do you cultivate ideas?

>We left off in the first post with having recognized that ideas are everywhere, that they’re obviously a product of your mind – but that they’re elusive and for some of us, hard to capture.  Obviously some people have an easier time of it (see #2, below) and so today we’ll start there.

Like everyone else on the planet, I’m full of “electrical impulses in my brain-meats,” (#1 in the previous post and #3, below)  some of which are more worthy of notice than others.  I’m also firmly in the school of thought that says, “no matter how much you protest that you’ve not got a creative bone in your body, that’s completely impossible unless you’re in a deep vegetative state.  If you’ve got a functioning brain, or even just consciousness, you’ve got a chance at being creative.”  (I’m not going to deny creativity to the myriad life forms who don’t happen to be graced with brains, it’s not my place to say slime molds and spider plants don’t have some form of creativity even if “we” don’t currently recognize it!).  That being said, though, it comes down to what you do with what you’ve got.

I asked, at the end of the previous post:  “How do you recognize ideas?  How do you relate to them?  How do you cultivate them?”

Maybe that’s what has frustrated so many writers and artists, that ideas are everywhere available to everyone, but the challenge is to see them.  Yet there are many, many methods out there that suggest ways the hopeful can welcome more ideas into their lives.  With their flighty, changeable nature, ideas are sometimes resistant to being caught but there are ways to become more aware of them and work with them.

Ideas might be related to but are structurally different from discursive thought.  If you’re at all aware of how your mind works, you know that thoughts come and go constantly.  Discursive thought is something like this:  “My bedroom is such a mess, I guess I’ll go clean it up, why am I always doing housework, gee the weather’s nice, I hope the seedlings didn’t get dried out, I should go check them.”  Images, on the other hand, are much more elemental – they flash on the scene, bare bones ready to be fleshed out with a little help.  I saw the books on my floor and before I was consciously aware of where this could go, I had the sense of the image-inary aspect of the stack that turned into this:  “There’s a stack of books on the floor near the bed, piled as high as the bedside table on which are piled another six or eight; as a woman goes to sort and re-shelve them she finds four copies of the same book within the pile, which is puzzling because she’s certain she has only one copy, the one give to her by her ex-boyfriend a week before he was killed in a robbery.”  Both types of thought started out the same – I had a pile of books on the floor – but I went with the image of the pile and maintained it until I saw something in that image and allowed it to move beyond the discourse.

So that’s a story idea that could be worked into something and it all started with an image.  Ideas are fundamentally images and the expansion of images.  By images I don’t mean only the visual – all senses are involved and so you have to learn to pay attention to your senses in your regular life – that’s part of the training to allow the images to take form into ideas that resonate with real life.

Ultimately what’s known about how the mind works, about how it’s possible that we are creative to begin with, is that we have better luck when we consciously choose to access the unconscious, which is the source of the image and its expansion.

I got this far through this post and then I hit a bit of a stuck spot.  So I pulled out a notebook and wrote:

“I’m at a stuck place in what I want to say about generating ideas.  So I have to talk it out in writing, which, after all, is the point of what I’m trying to say – the conscious mind wants control, wants its demands met in a a way it recognizes, wants everything neat and tidy and easy to understand immediately and so it acts as a kind of lid to everything percolating underneath, a filter – only letting a few things, pre-approved, slip out.

“I suppose everyone has to work it out for themselves – you have to find the methods you can rely on to slip past the control-freak mind and stick a hand down in the water.  You have to constantly be brave enough to want to do this without really knowing what exactly is swimming down there, without a guarantee of its suitability for being pulled out into the company of others.”

For me, my most reliable tool is freewriting.  It masquerades as journal work and so in the past my creative writing has been creative non-fiction and personal essays mixed with poetry.  Now that I’m dabbling in the water of fiction, I’m beginning to see that I’ll likely need new tools (and I have been introduced to a few, including the Sweet Spot Map from Holly Lisle as well as the usefulness of the question, and Active Imagination, all of which I’ll explain later).  Though I definitely write a lot of real life into my fiction, there’s a difference between autobiography or journal explorations and spicing a story up with experience.”

Quite possibly the freewriting technique (see Brande, Cameron, Goldberg or Ueland) works for storymaking thought I haven’t found my own groove for that yet.

What’s involved is a commitment to write for 10 minute increments – then writing whatever comes to mind, without judgment or hesitation – not stopping, not correcting, just allowing the writing to come as it does.  When I did that, as in this case, the stuck spot broke free and my idea continued along its intended path.

What freewriting does is allow the ideas that are housed in the unconscious to break through the grip of the conscious mind and come spilling out.  Not stopping to reread or even really notice what you’ve written gives the unconscious permission to come up with what it wants.  It’s often suggested that you don’t go back and reread for a few weeks even.

Brenda Ueland, in If You Want to Write talks about the importance of daydreaming or “moodling” – just letting your mind wander and paying light but persistent attention to what shows up.  Maybe this is why so many of us stall at the idea stage – we’re supposed to live up to an ideal productivity and moodling doesn’t look productive.  Neil Gaiman, too, says, “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”

So, pay attention.

Another method I’ve come across lately is termed Active Imagination.  Jung utilized this technique and the results are collected in the recently released Red Book. This is a much trickier endeavor, it seems, as Jung and others consistently press upon their readers that it’s best to undertake Active Imagination in a supervised or supported setting.  Jung apparently went through a phase where he figured he had become insane through his insistence to see Active Imagination through, deeper and deeper.  James Hillman, in Healing Fiction, writes,

     This method of active imagination which Jung inaugurated in modern psychology is an answer to the classical question of introspection at such a profound level that it changes the image of human being, of the psyche, and what Know  Thyself essentially means.”  

 In active imagination, the images are granted the right to have their own being – they are not merely figments of the imagination, they are archetypal images with their own existence.  As I have no experience with this, I can only refer you to other resources (online, in particular, The Iris of Time is a fascinating, touching, look at one writer’s experience with the process), but my sense is that when the unconscious mind recognizes that it has “permission” to be itself, it can step in, revealed as the source and reveling in its purpose.

Ultimately the cultivation of ideas comes down to paying attention to and then accepting what is given, initially without paralyzing the unconscious mind with censorship.  Later, having prepared the soil, it’s possible to know which seeds of ideas are likely to germinate and produce something nourishing and thus you can be selective about which ideas are kept and which are not.  That will be the eventual (and hopefully brief) third installment in this “series.”

#2: This author says, “The problem isn’t a shortage of ideas; it’s choosing which ones to use.”
#3:  When he’s asked, Neil Gaiman says: “‘I make them up,’ I tell them. ‘Out of my head.’
People don’t like this answer. I don’t know why not. They look unhappy, as if I’m trying to slip a fast one past them. As if there’s a huge secret, and, for reasons of my own, I’m not telling them how it’s done.”

Again, the paintings are by John William Waterhouse (link to a different site than in the first post)


>"Where do you get your ideas?"

>I do hate to open with a caveat and a disclaimer, but as I write this it just becomes more obvious to me that I don’t have a tidy thesis to wrap the topic up in. So, the caveat: if you’re looking for an absolute answer to this question, I don’t know if I actually get there. Perhaps this is just a case of needing to think out loud so I could figure some of these things out for myself as well. I’m happy to have you along for the journey if it’s of interest to you.

A friend recently asked, “How do YOU think of stories? Whenever I try, I either can’t think of anything, or I think of stories from my favorite books and movies. It’s very daunting to me to create a plot!”

Before I begin, let me offer my disclaimer – having me answer this question is at best counter-intuitive (I’m not that productive) and at worst, a case of me talking about something I’m still not very good at. The internet has many many resources, some free, some not, from others who are probably more qualified than I to write about this (I’ll list several at the end). But I’m going to continue anyway, because I LIKE being creative and maybe my experience – just being a regular person who’s figured some of this out – will help you along as well. I wrote poetry and doodled little water color drawings and thought of nifty things to build and decorate with during my last year or two of high school and for a few years after. I worried constantly about why my attempts to activate my creativity were so unreliable but still managed to hobble along through college and for a few years after. Then I got married, got a job, had kids and literally, within six or seven months of having my second child I pretty much stopped writing except for periodic, panicked passages in my journals about how I wished I could write, how I feared I didn’t qualify as a poet any more (damn T.S. Eliot anyway) and how I just didn’t know what to do with myself. 

Yet I enjoy thinking about how we think, though it tends to be a slippery subject – and I’m admittedly involved in a regular life that has only a little room for dreamy gazing and contemplation of the intersections of epistemology, psychology, and creativity – so it’s taken me a while to be able to see what appears like fish, something just under the surface, and to be able to describe, based on fleeting glimpses, flashes of tails and scales and all.  But I’ve been, if not sidetracked (from the work of creating), at least educationally mesmerized by the topic of creativity and how to accept its demands and enhance its undertakings.  I’ve found that a lot of other people are fishing as well.  Being a process-oriented person, this has been a fascinating line of enquiry both for the pleasure at uncovering the diversity of materials and explanations on this topic and for the processes that exist for cultivating creativity (some of which I’ve been playing with).  So, having established my reasons for undertaking this topic, let’s get down to business.

From my friend’s question I found actually two questions – one is her direct request, how do you create something big, like a book, like an entire plot?  The other is more subtle, is the same question, but at a more nuanced level – where do ideas come from?  It’s this second one that I’m going to look at first.

Where do ideas come from?

I wonder how many worried people have asked this question of how many prolific others.  Even me, I’ve thought it, even if I haven’t asked it.  A lot of artists and writers have answered this question impatiently (see below, #1) – like they’re sick of it, like it’s a stupid question.  But it’s not a stupid question because it indicates something about how we order or train our natural selves in order to fit, “normally” into a society which looks askance at creativity unless it is conventionally productive, unless it maintains a form that doesn’t shake things up too much or manages to meet a certain radical-yet-acceptable norm.

But first, the “back of my mind,” (aka my unconscious, my Muse-mind, my inner paint-smeared child) is jumping up and down, shrieking, “I know!  I know where they come from!  Ooo! Ooo!  I know!”

And so I have to go here first. “They’re dropped on the road by ravens, they hide under big floppy green leaves, get kicked up by car tires, hide between notes of music, show up at the curbs of city sidewalks, skulk behind doors, drift with memories like dandelion puffs and are mistakenly stirred into soup.  They trip you on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, sit in the passenger seat of your car until the city finally drops away and the silent road curves and winds and they loosen from their seat belts and tumble into your lap, they stretch on spiders webs across your doorway and get caught in your hair where you absentmindedly brush them off.  They get carried in on the soles of your friends’ shoes and perch, poised on the season’s first berries, waiting for you to be ready to taste.  They’re everywhere.”

Now at this point, the reasonable and the reasonably intimidated person stops and thinks, “Well, if they’re everywhere, why aren’t I finding them?  How is it that I’m deficient?” and to answer that we have to probe a little deeper.

If they’re everywhere, but they’re too elusive and hard to spot, maybe the more appropriate questions are, “How do you recognize ideas?  How do you relate to them?  How do you cultivate them?”

… I’ll continue with these questions in the next “installment” – hopefully within a day or two.


#1:  I’m a fan of Catherynne M. Valente’s writing (I really like the very adult but dreamy and poetic and rich Palimpsest, as well as a number of her essays) but here’s what she says, when asked “Where do your ideas come from?”  “Seriously? It takes some balls to ask that question since every writer in history in on record saying “Shut up.” They come from electrical impulses in my brain-meats.”  Ok, I admit, I’m going to rain on the snark in that answer, with the hope that my lengthy answer in this and related posts doesn’t make anyone feel stupid for wondering where ideas come from.

* both paintings are by John William Waterhouse.