That question, more than any other, seems to be a bugbear for writers and other artists.
I find it embarrassing, myself. Not because it’s hard to answer, and not because the answer (from my brain) is so obvious and anticlimactic. It’s because I inevitably hear a question behind the question: why is it that you have good ideas and I don’t?
It can’t be true that the asker has no ideas, or really doesn’t know where ideas come from, right? Those aren’t possibilities I can entertain, and I am the queen of entertaining possibilities. The question, as asked, doesn’t make much sense.
The unasked question, on the other hand, is awkward. It puts a chasm between me and the asker (Rachel = full of glorious ideas; asker = full of stupid ideas) and I feel pretty sure the asker didn’t quite mean to ask it. Is it rude to answer what was not explicitly asked? I usually make up some kind of funny answer that is also true: where don’t I get ideas? Ideas are like a fire hose to the face, and I wish I could turn it off sometimes.
Here’s what I’d rather say, though:
I don’t have good ideas, or at least, not any better than anyone else. What I have is a willingness to entertain ideas. I don’t dismiss them out of hand. I have them over for tea, and if we get along well enough, maybe dinner. The ones I really like end up staying over. And maybe I should cut that metaphor off right there; you get the idea. My “good” ideas are simply the ones that interest me most, just like my friends are the people I get along with best, rather than the best people.
I will entertain any idea, no matter how ugly. Sometimes the ugliest ones are the most fruitful; sometimes they’re ugly because they’re full of other ideas. Scary ones are harder to face, and I will sometimes put them off, but I’ve never yet regretted looking one in the eye. Insipid ones, boring ones, cliched and tedious ones – I get plenty of those. I’m happy to let them in because sometimes a more unusual idea is hiding underneath them.
I don’t marry my ideas. There are always, ALWAYS more; that is an article of faith for me. I let go of the ones that don’t grab me or I can’t use – and I get so many I’m not sure I even see them all – but what I never do is label them stupid or bad. You start putting those kinds of labels on ideas, and maybe the ideas will get the idea that your mind is an unsafe place to be. Why should they come around, if you’re going to be so mean to them? (and yet I bet some of them still do).
What I’m trying to say – in the most circuitous way possible – is that ideas invite more ideas. I think the really interesting ones only come around after you’ve shown a certain willingness to entertain the lesser ones. You can’t just dismiss the little ones; it’d be like dismissing a rock for being boring, when you could have built Chartres with enough rocks just like it.
It’s not a question of where I get ideas, but of how I treat ideas.
There’s probably more to it. Different minds probably generate different flavours of ideas. Some may be more suited to other purposes, like philosophy, or business, or physics. But again, I think the willingness to consider possibilities – even the ones that inner Grendel-voice would like to dismiss as stupid – would be a useful trait of mind in any field.
Before I go, let me just invoke the classic(al) example of a “stupid” idea. Have some Beethoven:
Duh-duh-duh-DUUUUHHHHNNN. That’s a musical idea. It’s pretty ludicrous, on the face of things. It seems barely an idea worth having. But old Ludwig, by golly, he invited it in. He talked to it and listened to what it had to tell him. He built a mighty edifice from that stupid stone.
O hypothetical asker! Talk to your stupid ideas. They’re as full of potential as any of mine.