>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.
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.”
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)