• Alexis Howell-Jones

"Where do you get your ideas from?" - My answer

aka how insight training can make you a better writer

Right now, all around you, millions of neurons are firing around inside approximately 7 billion of the most sophisticated organic computers this planet has to offer. These computers take on millions of tasks, running everything you do from sandwich making to driving a car, mental arithmetic to remembering pub quiz answers, regulating your internal temperature or moving vital oxygen around the body... Conscious or unconscious, the list is constant and endless.

But there's one particular bit of brain activity that appeals to us writers and which we yearn to control better. The "Eureka" Moment.

That insight, that great idea. The kind of thing that sent Archimedes streaking from his bath. The kind of thing that takes us from chewing pencils and faffing to writing furiously and progressing a beautiful new idea.

In short, it's one of the biggest newbie questions to ask someone at a talk - "where do you get your ideas?".

And I've been trying to come up with a sensible answer.

Here's Neil Gaiman's response, whilst we're warming up.

Whilst rolling goat bones would be lovely, there is some science that can be applied towards creating ideas.

It involves researching to get the information you want to play with into your brain, then being relaxed and contented enough to let your unconscious and conscious bat this information around and try to make those Eureka connections.

The cocktail of inspiration

To avoid going through the science in detail, all you need to know is that we have different types of brain wave frequency that change in intensity as we go from deep to light sleep, through waking to low consciousness up to intense focus.

The sweet spot frequency in creative terms is when we are in a near sleep waking state, where both the conscious and unconscious are at work.

Loading the bases

The first important thing to note is you need to fill your brain with items of information which will then be shifted and banged together by your brain looking for interesting connections.

So, simply, be curious. Investigate. Read articles about people, situations and find something new. Watch films to get ideas of familiar concepts.

Now you've got loads of concepts - and lots of stuff from your subconscious waiting to play with it. What next?

Waking and Falling Asleep

Many of my writer friends report having a more fertile imagination just before sleeping or just after waking.

I get some of my best ideas in the morning. I think intensely about the characters and issues in the script I need to solve as I'm dropping off, and in the morning wake up, recall what I was doing - then go do something else like make coffee and listen to some music. Somewhere in my head the ideas are being stirred, two interesting ideas slap together and - POP. Inspiration.

Some others have that notebook by the bed since they will always have a great idea when they're about to drop off. This doesn't happen as often with me, but I always can send myself an email and then leave the idea for tomorrow. In any event, my subconscious is probably still playing with the idea overnight anyway!

Great. But how do we get that state during the day, without a severe number of naps?

Daytime dreaming

Everyone will have heard of various writer's recommendations, which include:

- Long walks or other forms of exercise - well if it doesn't work, at least you're fitter. Studies though have shown that getting out into nature increases your creativity and health - so find a park!;

- A good shower - Aaron Sorkin famously has up to 8 showers a day when he's beating writer's block. He's successful and smells great, I guess.

- Going for a long drive - good, but maybe not so environmental. Maybe just a short journey, or cycle!;

- Drinking alcohol - not recommended - we are well past Hemingway, and you should be good to your liver;

-- Listening to music - this is a big one for me - I listen to soundtracks with no lyrics which I've listened to several times before. so it means I don't think too much about it in the background, but it distracts me enough.

There's hundreds more little ways. But they all involve having thought intensely about something, then doing something familiar and distracting which relaxes you, taking you towards that.

Stress - when necessity is the mother of invention

There is one other moment where inspiration can strike usually - when you're up against it. And the weird thing is usually that stress kills creativity.

There is something glorious about a deadline. My best ideas come in opposition to a deadline. I do appreciate that some people are allergic to them (Douglas Adams famously said, "I love deadlines, especially that whooshing noise as they go by"). But that was a famous novellist with an understanding agent.

Let's assume we haven't got that leeway. The Apollo 13 crew didn't for example. But that apparently was since they had one clear problem to focus on. One article indicates that functioning under stress is a matter, like with the Apollo 13 crew, of moving aside all non-essential tasks to focus on only the most urgent issue first.

Incidentally, I strongly suspect this is why Steve Jobs always wore the same clothes as he got older. One less unimportant decision to concentrate on.

This is an unsubtle hint if you're under a deadline - address the most urgent issue first and keep any distraction out of the way. No social media stimulus, no phones, and so on.

Practice makes perfect

"The best way to have a great idea is to have lots of ideas". Linus Pauling was right. Have them. LotsDon't worry if they don't feel great. One day you might combine it with something else and hit gold.

I have an email folder called "Ideas" and I email the oddest things that haven't yet made the grade. But one day, you never know.

The brain becomes better when it practices failing and learns - and if it's doing that unconsciously, you won't get wound up! It will keep taking all these ideas, and keep trying to stick them together.

Summary - Follow Archimedes

Many high concept films start with a "What If"? Looking for those and finding a great idea are like gold.

Unfortunately it's not an exact science. I cannot guarantee you will become prolific. But it's down to you to practice and hopefully increase the frequency of ideas.

In the end, practicing idea creation is like practicing a golf swing. It's not going to guarantee perfection, but it gets you closer. So investigate, get enough interesting information in you, find a good way to relax, practice and, maybe, just maybe...


Links to related articles:

My other blogs!

Scientific American - What is the Function of the Various Brain Waves?

Lifehacker - science behind creative ideas

National Geographic - Going into Nature increases Creativity and health

Harvard Business Review - Creativity Under The Gun

Anything you want to discuss, just email me at ahjwriter@gmail.com

#story #writing #screenwriting #ideas #alexishowelljones