I love getting to meet people who have read my books – it’s one of the very nicest parts of being an author. But one topic comes up frequently and yet always surprises me. People ask me where I get my ideas and then wait for an answer as though they think I shop at a secret “Ideas R Us” store and I’m going to give them the address. (I wish I did have access to a store like that, because I’d shop there a lot.)
The truth is a lot less fun, but a lot more believable. I work at it. I spend countless hours, I take notes, I write and rewrite and stomp around. I think about stories, characters, conversations, and plot twists all the time. Sometimes I get stumped, and I have to set my creative problem aside for a while, then try to sneak around it and surprise it when it’s not looking. In fact, because I have to work so hard, I’ve never thought of myself as being particularly creative.
It turns out, that’s just the way it works. In a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal, Jonah Lehrer discusses “How To Be Creative” and the best news is “anyone can learn to be creative and get better at it.”
The key is understanding that each creative challenge requires a different type of cognitive process. Some problems need a sudden flash of insight – that “ah ha!” moment that feels so wonderful. You can boost your abilities in this area by relaxing, by having a drink, by thinking about something else, by not paying attention for a while. This allows your right brain to process the information and besides, it’s fun. Einstein once said, “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.” And if you can’t trust Einstein, well who can you trust?
The flip side is that other problems require steady small steps – the type of continual incremental work that eventually brings success. Experimenting, refining, editing, and repeating often produces truly polished and magnificent work. Nietzsche said, “All great artists and thinkers are great workers.”*
(* The difference in these two quotes explains why Einstein was invited to far more parties than Nietzsche.)
Writing, more than almost any other type of activity, requires all the tools in the creativity shed. The flash of inspiration that explodes into a great character or story, the smaller flow when the perfect word leaps from your keys, the steady progress made by sitting at the keyboard day after day, week after week, whether you feel like it or not. Since I write in the mornings, I very seldom turn to alcohol (as far as you know), but the daydreaming, the slack-jawed staring into space, even (yes, it’s embarrassing) that occasional game of solitaire get my brain and creativity going each day. I used to think I was wasting time…but maybe I was just giving myself the break I needed.
What do you do to get your ideas flowing?
For more fabulous posts, be sure to see the Algonquin Redux blog, where writers get together to talk about writing, books, and life.