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Monday, December 24, 2007


"Where do ideas come from?"

Famous creative people are often asked that question, and they never have satisfying answers. Whoever's asking the question feels like there's some great repository of inspiration that they haven't found.

But it's the wrong question. Artists get their ideas from everything they see. A writer might get an idea for a short story by looking at a toaster. Even if he happened to remember that that's where he got the idea from, it wouldn't mean anything.

The right question is "How do ideas come?" And you're in luck, because I happen to know the answer to that.

Ideas come from imitating elements, correcting mistakes, utilizing available tools and fulfilling needs.

They might not look like much, but all creativity is based on these four simple principles.

This is when you look at something and say "I could do that!".

You see a person in the Real World, with a personality that surprises you. You see an opportunity: "I could entertain people with these characteristics!". So you write down a story, about a person who is defined by those traits that you found interesting.

You watch a movie, and analyze its structure. "Hmm.", you say, "That's really not so complicated!". So you use that structure yourself.

You see a pretty sunset. You say: "I could impress people with those colors!". So you draw a painting of the sunset, or use its colors on something else.

This is the least impressive kind of inspiration. If someone notices that you took an idea from somewhere, they redirect some of their admiration from you to whoever you got the idea from. So you've got to be subtle in your imitations. Imitating format or technique is fine. Imitating very vague ideas is fine. Imitating individual characteristics is fine, but not if you imitate too many all from the same place. (Better to take just a little bit from here, and a little bit from here, and a little bit from here…)

Imitating impressions you get from nature, or phenomena which aren't controlled by individual people (such as politics or society), is perfectly acceptable. You can also repeat yourself, especially within a single work. (This suggests to the audience that you know what you're doing.)

This is when you look at something and say "I could do that better!".

When you see a good idea badly implemented, you start thinking about what it should have done.

You analyze your dissatisfaction, to see where it went wrong. Maybe there's a flaw in the creators' thinking, maybe you just personally disagree with their approach. Either way, you end up with an idea you like better, and which you wouldn't have come up with without being dissatisfied in the first place.

(I think it's important to be exposed to things you don't like, so that you can learn from them.)

You hear a story of pure good vs. pure evil, and it leaves you cold. You think about what you want from the story that you're not getting. Maybe you're looking for people to relate to, and they're too simple and un-human. So you come up with variations on the characters which make them more flawed, or more like people you know in life.

You see all the problems with society, and start analyzing the problem. Through this analysis, you might come up with an idea for a better society.

Sometimes the ideas you come up with are better than the ones you're rejecting. Sometimes they're not, because they've got all sorts of problems of their own. Either way, it's nice to try.

Utilizing tools
This is when you ask "What can I do?".

You have a paintbrush. You have a canvas. You draw a line. The only reason you drew that line is because you wanted to do something with that paintbrush and canvas.

It is possible to have inspiration in a vacuum. If you just fool around with your tools enough, eventually you'll (by accident) find something you like doing with them.

By "tools" I don't just mean literal tools, I also mean techniques and potential subjects.

Basically, this is like a baby throwing toys around to see what happens. The artist tries everything he can, whether or not he thinks it'll be good, whether or not he thinks he'll enjoy doing it. Just by trying things for the sake of trying things, he'll find a good idea.

This type of inspiration is how you'd write a rhyme. You've got a sentence you'd like to start from, and you need to continue it somehow. You don't know how, so you just throw words around in your head until you come up with one that rhymes. Then you fill in the rest of the line. If that doesn't work, you throw around more words and repeat. If you're still not satisfied, you try something else for the first sentence and start over. With patience, you eventually come up with something that works.

Every time the technology available to artists improves, it sparks a lot of inspiration in a lot of people. The artists try to think of every possible usage of the new tool, whether or not there's any reason for it, and eventually one of those many ideas seems like a good one.

This is not a reliable method of inspiration, but often it's all you've got.

Fulfilling needs
This is when you ask "What should I do?".

It's the easiest kind of inspiration, probably because we're all so experienced in it from dreaming. You're missing something in your life, so you invent it.

You're lonely, so you write a story about people you'd like.

You find the world confusing and uncontrollable, so you make a painting with a clear and simple order to it.

Often you'll come up with the idea for a work of art just so that you can show yourself what sort of art you'd like to experience.

Or you might see that other people would like to experience a certain type of art. You might see an opportunity there, and come up with an idea to satisfy them. But this takes more effort and results in a weaker idea than if you focused only on yourself.

So there you have them, the rules of creativity. Now, I'm hardly the most creative person ever, so I might be totally wrong. If so, I hope you'll comment with an example of creativity which is not an application of these principles. But I'm pretty confident that all inspiration follows the same patterns.

So let's say a writer looks at a toaster. That's where he gets an idea from, which doesn't matter at all. But how does he get an idea?

First of all, he's bored. So he tries to think of all the possible things one might do with a toaster. (Utilizing tools) One of the many bad ideas he has is that people might strap them to their heads, and shove in bread whenever someone starts a conversation with them. That way, if the person talks for too long he gets hot, burnt toast shot into his face. (Fulfilling needs) The writer then decides he likes the idea of regulating the length of conversations. So he imagines a society where there are penalties for long blabbering. (Imitation of the previous idea) But something about that leaves him unsatisfied. He decides it's too much like a utopia, and devises a group of rebels dedicated to the cause of never-ending jibber-jabber. (Correction) He writes an amusing story about their efforts.

That's how an idea is born.



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