It’s a question writers, musicians, chefs, and creatives of all stripes have been asked in interviews approximately 1 googol times (click the link. It’s a real measurement I did not make up at all). “Where do you get your ideas?”
The answer, of course, is that anyone who ever achieves anything in a creative field makes a deal with a Crossroads Demon, trading their everlasting souls for “ideas.”
To those who want to create things but do not know where to start, this probably seems like the most likely explanation. I found this to be a surprisingly common complaint out on the internets. “I want to write a book, but I don’t know what to write about!” Take a look at the screenshot at right. Entering “I want to write but” into Google pre-populates several versions of fundamentally the same question. What’s more, the results are remarkably similar when entering any artistic or creative skill. It’s a series of laments about either one’s lack of ability or absence of ideas.
If this applies to you, you’re in luck! Today I will reveal three secrets to coming up with ideas as a writer. I suspect these would apply just about equally to other creative endeavors as well.
Coming up with ideas is quite easy and requires zero crossroads demons, though I suspect meeting a crossroads demon would give you a few. Ideas come from life and the living of it. Note that “life” includes anything we experience with our senses. I don’t mean it’s necessarily as simple as just, like, walking to the grocery store or something. Well actually, I do mean that. Go to the grocery store, walk around, smell things. Try to absorb the experience whether you’re doing something mundane or exciting.
Go for a walk through your neighborhood and notice the buildings, the people, the plants.
Ride a bike somewhere and think about parts of your community you don’t normally see.
Talk to your mail carrier.
Take a hot air ballon ride.
Get into a gasoline fight. (actually, this one is not advised)
The point is that the more activities in which we participate, the more we have to draw on for stories. I think it’s particularly valuable to do things you might not normally do. It’s a great way to construct characters. If you find that every character you create seems like just some manifestation of yourself, don’t beat yourself up about it. Any character you create will be to an extent.
But doing things that are outside of your comfort zone can help you think about how other kinds of people operate, which is key to unlocking interesting, well-rounded characters who can drive a plot.
So get outside and do things, and while you’re at it, try to engage in the mundane more than you might otherwise. Doesn’t have to be all the time. It would get exhausting to try to figure out WHAT IT ALL MEANS every time you need to pick up some eggs, but you’ll learn a lot if you can remember to do it on occasion.
For writers, one of the more consistent pieces of advice you’ll come across is to read – a lot. It’s often posited as prerequisite for writing at all. A famous quotation from William Faulkner along those lines reads:
“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.
Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”
Another from Stephen King goes:
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
I’ve made it clear that I’m not big on rules for what it means to be a “real writer,” but I do think devoting time to read is one of the most valuable things you can do to improve your writing. What I find somewhat odd is how often writers seem to make it sound like only reading helps you become a better writer. While I think a strong case can be made that reading is the non-writing activity that most helps with writing, it’s far from the only one.
Expand yourself to media consumption of all kinds. Movies, music, video games, whatever. There are brilliant ideas to be had from all of these things if you can learn to see them. Reading is pivotal, no doubt, but I think these other forms of media can be more valuable for certain things. While reading has the most direct correlation to writing skills in terms of turns of phrase, vocabulary, style, etc, I find myself gaining greater insights into the act of storytelling from other media. I like to watch a scene in a movie or TV show and think about how I would write that same scene. How would I recreate, effectively, in print something from visual media? How would I convey the facial expressions? Tone? What would I add that the visual media does not have, such as smell and feel?
Say Yes to Things (Especially Yourself)
I suspect that most people who claim they have no ideas just mean that they just think their own ideas are not any good. Maybe that’s true! But probably not. Like anything else, your ideas will get better the more you practice. In this case “practice” means allowing them to live a bit and engaging with them. If your first instinct when an idea pops into your head is to come up with all the reasons it can’t work or isn’t any good, try forcing yourself to make it work first.
This one trumps everything. Or rather, maybe it’s a prerequisite to the two above. I write a lot about fear and analysis paralysis. No matter how many times I tell myself not to let these things be barriers, I still struggle with them. I have at least some tools for coping with them, but this one matters more than all the others. Learn to say yes to things in general but particularly your own ideas. I do not think this can be overstated. The surest, simplest, most direct path to having more ideas is to say yes to yourself. Do it all the time. Force yourself to say yes at least once before you say no.
This is an emotional barrier more than an intellectual one, but there is one single activity that I think can help with it more than any other.
Take an improv comedy class.
A good improv class will be among the most emotionally safe places you could ever hope to be in terms of getting past self-consciousness regarding your ideas. It will also teach you how to generate ideas quickly, how to embrace the ideas of others, and how to quiet that voice inside that wants to say no. It checks all the boxes I’ve listed here. You’re doing something new — something that might be outside your comfort zone. You’re consuming another media/storytelling format and a live action one at that. You’re saying yes (yes, and!) to things and to yourself. I don’t think you’ll regret it.
What Comes Next
Ideas are everywhere once you learn to look and listen (and taste and smell and touch). Getting to the point where you learn to say yes to yourself is a key first step, but it’s only that. It’s what you do with ideas that really counts. I still struggle with processing ideas myself, so the next post will deal with my process and how I’m trying to get better at it. For a good write up to help think about the distance between “where ideas come from” and “what you do with them,” check out this from Neil Gaiman.