Mike Hutcheson: Where do ideas come from?

Where do ideas come from? An interesting question that, particularly for a columnist faced with a looming deadline and writer’s block.

Ideas are around us all the time. They’re just hard to see. And we sometimes try too hard. There’s an African saying: to carve an elephant from a block of wood, just remove all the wood that doesn’t look like an elephant. Similarly, Italian artist Michelangelo was once asked how he was able to carve an angel out of a block of marble. His famous reply was: “The angel is always there, I just carve to set him free.”

Henry Ford reckoned the air was full of ideas. “They are knocking you in the head all the time. You only have to know what you want, then forget it, and go about your business. Suddenly the idea will come. It was there all the time.”

Trouble is, with a deadline for that killer sales idea, or a publisher hounding you for the first sentence of your novel, how long do you have to wait? Worse, what happens if the angel doesn’t appear? A few years ago I sat down with psychologist Rebecca Webster to think up “ideas boosters”; techniques to ignite the creative process.

Somewhat to our surprise we found 84 of them. (Published in a book Kickstart your Creativity) Some were fairly obvious – jot thoughts of wisdom down asap, for example, or brainstorm with your colleagues. Some were less obvious (savour your rejected ideas or translate your problem into a symbol). Many were about trying to look at a problem in a new way. One thing I was taught in art class was to look at my drawings upside down, from between my legs, or reversed in a mirror. Looking at things differently lets you see distortions. It’s a good metaphor for idea development.

The answer to the question “Where do ideas come from” is there is no one answer. It’s like asking where memories live. Do they exist permanently in neuro-electrical form in the brain’s filing cabinet? Or are some out in the cosmos, scientifically unmeasurable electrons, gluons or leptons carrying the sum of everything everyone has ever known, and then lured back like ghosts, triggered by our own sub-atomic particulate thoughts?

One thing I didn’t cover much in the book is whether ideas are more likely to come in certain physical locations, but I suspect it’s important.

I once had lunch with Australian author Bryce Courtenay. He related an experience he had in Japan on a book-signing tour after he had written his first novel, Power of One. He was being interviewed by a Japanese journalist who asked “How do you get your ideas?” It’s one of those questions that indicate if you have to ask the question you wouldn’t understand the answer, so Bryce didn’t immediately reply.

But when the reporter kept coming back to it, Bryce resorted to lying (creatively): “I live in a terrace house in an older suburb of Sydney and at the back of my house is a walled garden with a hedge-lined path leading to a seat at the back. I sit on this seat in the lotus position, staring at the wall and after about fifteen minutes the words appear.”

He had pang of regret later at his blatant fabrication, realising he could have encouraged a whole generation of aspiring Japanese authors to stare at walls waiting fruitlessly for inspiration. But actually, for those who don’t know how to conjure up ideas, it was probably as good a piece of advice as they were going to get.

Some years ago I read an article by Michael Clancy for the Christian Science Monitor, identifying the ultimate cure for writer’s block – get away to your own (uninteresting) space.

Clancy has researched writers who found their inspiration in private hideaways. (Roald Dahl, for example, wrote everything in a hut in his orchard.) “Retreating to the confines of a tiny shed is the first step for many writers in freeing their imagination,” Clancy says.

Another version of the same theme involves finding inspiration by installing yourself in as unstimulating environment as possible. “Appealing workplaces are to be avoided,” wrote American author Annie Dillard in The Writing Life. “One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.”

For many writers pressed with domestic distractions, the uncluttered environment is also pragmatic.

“I have a theory that women escape from home to write, while men I know escape from the world by staying home,” says writer Katharine Weber. “I suspect that this is because the dishes and laundry do not call out their name.”

This works well as an ideas-generating tactic – as long as no one else knows you are there. Clancy tells of Tennessee novelist Will Campbell’s hut. “Over the years, the cabin has evolved into a meeting place for friends and readers… The meetings have interrupted his efforts to write his way out of… writer’s block… but he accepts visitors regardless.

Campbell himself put it another way: “I try to discourage people. They think I know more than I do. But I sort of run an open shop, don’t turn folks away. I can get out of work and pretend I’m helping someone.”

Writing this in an open plan office with a looming deadline I completely sympathise.