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Friday, April 27, 2012

Guest Post: Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?

Today I'm delighted to welcome back to my blog freelance writer and creativity guru Phil South.

Phil believes in harnessing the power of the subconscious to help boost your creativity. In this article, he explains how successful writers do this (possibly without realising it), and how any aspiring writer can learn to do the same.

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Where do you get your ideas from? This is the most common question successful authors get asked by fans, by a significant margin.

Ask any famous writer and they'll tell you they dread this question. That's because either they have no answer, or they know the questioner would not know how to interpret their answer. So either they don't know where they get their ideas from, or they know but they can't explain in terms others can understand.

If you dig a little deeper, you might get them to tell you a bit about their writing environment, and what situation they are in when they get most of their ideas, and this seems like the answer (spoiler: it's not).

And so you get the same word processor they use, sit in the same sort of chair, buy a house (like theirs) with a south-facing window with a stream running through the garden, and so on. You duplicate everything about their environment, down to the exact brand of clothes they wear and the toiletries they use. You are in an identical situation, you see what they see, you even look and smell just like them... But does this guarantee you get the same ideas as them? No.

Why is this? Well, the one thing you haven't duplicated, the one thing you couldn't possibly copy about them, is that their brain is fundamentally different from yours. They have a different life experience, and they have unconsciously trained their brains to be good at catching ideas.

Developing the Creative Brain

They have spent years developing the neural pathways in their brain by thinking in certain ways and learning about life in the way writers do, born of a fascination with the way the world works. They've studied how people work, reading a diverse range of books, some fiction, some non-fiction. They've read books by authors from their own genre and authors who write other types of books. They have hobbies, they might make things with their hands, they have enquiring minds, they have interests that are nothing to do with writing. And they have written, every day, and for the vast majority of that time what they wrote was meaningless twaddle, but they were fearless and kept writing anyway. All this activity molded their brains  and gave them that thing every writer craves: a free access to their creativity.

As a consequence of this, ideas just flow to them. The problem becomes not getting ideas, but of typing fast enough to get them down on paper before they go mad. They have become so adept at the gathering of ideas that they can't stop the effortless flow. Ideas come at them from every direction, and almost anything they see or hear can be turned into a story or a character or a plotline.

Without any direct intention to do so, they were doing something extraordinary to their brains over the years. They were developing the areas that make connections, and they were also sweeping the road between their conscious and subconscious minds, making sure that road was clear and the traffic on it was moving smoothly.

Programming for Creativity

But having adapted their brain "hardware" they also worked on their mind "software", learning to identify the perfect mental state for creating great work, and learning to give themselves time to think and ponder. They recognise passing thoughts as cryptic messages from their subconscious and they get good at pondering them without judgement. They know instinctively to let their subconscious do its work without trying to force the issue.

They know that all the things they learned about have gone into that infinite bucket of ideas, the subconscious - what I call the "database of everything" - and they know that if they turn over a passing thought in their mind in a certain special mental state, the thought will be added to by their subconscious. But it needs to be pondered over long enough for the brain to do its work.

So the answer to "Where do ideas come from?" is that they come from your almost limitless subconscious and they manifest as passing thoughts. Creative geniuses are the people who recognise these thoughts for what they are, and trust their brains to turn them into something more.

Can You Do This?

So why don't you think this way? Why should you need to train yourself to think in any way other than the way you already do? That's a good question.

Well, I'm not advocating that you change the way you think, or stop thinking the way you do. On the contrary, you need to continue to think the way you do, but you need to add some tools to your toolbox.

You are an individual, and even though you might not yet have found your voice as a writer, you do have one. Everyone does. So you need to embrace that originality - a better word is authenticity - but you also need to be more aware of the source of your ideas.

Can you train yourself to be a creative genius? Yes, you can. Tools I endorse are meditation, brain training and learning.

Meditation is a way of clearing the mind, centreing yourself and teaching yourself the patience to sit long enough for ideas to form. Brain training is a fabulous way to fast track yourself into the right brain states for creative thought. And learning? If you learn a language, for example, or a physical skill like juggling even, you expand the connections in your brain and make it more versatile. These are the kinds of techniques I use in my training to give my students a creativity efficiency tune-up.

But there are things you can do now to make yourself more creative. You know how sometimes you get a passing thought and you get a sense it might make a good story.  What do you do? You write it down. But the crucial question is what do you do then? Do you store it away and forget about it in the hope that more ideas like it will come? Or do you turn it over in your mind, like a mental Rubik's cube, curious but without judgement, until more ideas come? That is what you should do, but generally we do the former and either ignore or get in the way of the subconscious mind, or we wait for ideas to come from outside. Or worse still, we try to force our creativity out. We need to train ourselveves to stand back and let our brain do its job. You let your creativity out; you don't shoot ideas out like bullets.

For good creative thinking you need uninterrupted time. You need to clear your mind of all thoughts, all distractions and pulls to get busy, and sit quietly and ponder the idea. Put on some soothing music if necessary. But sit for at least 20 minutes and don't think about anything but the idea. If you start thinking about something else, don't get all hot and bothered - just gently pull yourself back to the idea. Don't "work it out" or try to force it in any particular direction. Just feel it. Is it an image or a feeling? Explore it. Let your mind wander through the idea. Let it grow on its own.

This takes practice, so you need to be persistent and dedicated. Nobody said creative genius was easy to obtain. But I'm telling you, it's possible for you to do this and do it well. 

Your Built-In Supercomputer

Your subconscious mind is incredibly powerful, more powerful and faster and with more storage space than the most powerful computer you can buy. Here's why. If the conscious mind took up a cubic foot, how big would the subconscious be?

It would be 11 square miles.

Add to that the fact you can process about 7-10 thoughts a second in the conscious mind if you're lucky, and how much do you suppose the subconscious can process?

Somewhere in the order of 10-40 billion thoughts per second.

That's an extraordinary tool to have at your disposal. Why try and brute force your stories and ideas with your conscious mind if you have that amazing tool right there waiting to be used? Think of all the connections you could make, all the ideas you could have, if you let that amazing part of your mind do its work without getting in its way?

So this is why creative bestselling geniuses have no problem finding ideas, and why they have very little clue where they come from. They just turn on the tap and the ideas come streaming out. Because these writers have learned the most important lesson - to trust the subconscious, and get out of the way and let it do its job.

Phil South
Byline: Phil South (pictured) is a writer, artist and musician. He runs the popular Going Down Writing creativity blog and is the author of the Creative Genius Programme. The first 8 hour audio course in CGP, Writing Fit: Creativity Coaching for Writers, is out now. Exclusive Offer: Readers of this blog can get the course for $120 off with this link. If for any reason the link doesn't work on your browser, go to the course page and use the coupon code "nickdaws". [Note from ND: This is purely a discount code for my readers - I won't receive any commission on sales!]

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Many thanks to Phil for another thought-provoking article. Do check out his Writing Fit programme. I've only had the chance to dip into my own copy so far, but it really does appear an amazing resource for writers who want to turbo-charge their creativity by harnessing the power of their subconscious.

If you have any comments or questions for Phil (or me), please do post them below.

Photo Credit: Magic Apples by H. Koppdelaney on Twitter. Reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic Licence. Photo of Phil South supplied by the author.

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Blogger the scribbler said...

A great post; I just wish I had this ability to tap this mine of a resource. Thanks for the ideas.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

Hi Scribbler, thank you for those kind words. Much appreciated.

Anyone can learn to do this. One barrier in the way of doing it well, actually, is that subconscious thought that you don't have the ability to do it. Obviously that thought resides right in the same place in your mind as the tap outlet for your ideas. You have to free yourself of this limiting belief and the ideas will flow. :)

Try meditation, because if you do nothing else that will improve your creative flow enormously by stilling your mind and increasing the capacity of the container for ideas.

If sitting in silence for 20 mins a day is too much, try 10 at first. Or try sitting with soothing music. Or get a meditation app for your phone.

Hope this helps! I'll be happy to answer any and all other questions on this topic, of course.

warmest regards


4:23 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

I find walking helps to create ideas for me. If I stare at the computer it won't help me. I can read things but when I walk the ideas flow. Could walking be like meditation?

12:38 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

Hi Lisa,

very much so. Formal meditation is primarily a way of clearing your consciousness for the correct flow of ideas, but lower brain wave states we get into daily disconnect our conscious mind and allow free flow of ideas. Daydreaming, physical tasks, anything we know how to do on autopilot, lull us into these useful alpha states of mind.

For example I used to get all my best ideas while I was commuting into work driving for 7 years an hour and half each way. It bores your conscious mind and puts you in a dreamy contemplative state.

If desires/passing thoughts are like hunger pangs, they are a message from your subconscious that you need to pay attention, an egg of an idea if you like. So you turn that idea over in your mind in this state of relaxed awareness. And then POP a more fully formed idea comes out. Do the same to the idea, turn it over in your mind without judgement and POP the idea gets more ideas attached to it. And so on.

These states relieve us from the chatter of everyday life. We have so many ways to stop boredom in the 21st Century, but boredom (I call it stillness) is so important because it turns off our argumentative conscious mind and lets our subconscious get on with its work. Walking and driving and housework and playing with LEGO and making paper mache let our minds process ideas in a way that TV, video games and sitting staring at the computer don't. We all need to stop being so darned busy all the time.

And hey walking is so very good for your physiology too, all that oxygen and gentle stretching exercise. Nothing is better for the brain than something which nurtures the body.

Thanks so much for commenting!


1:25 PM  
Anonymous Liz said...

Hey Phil,

One of the things that helps me with ideas and tapping into my subconscious is bouncing a ball while I'm thinking. Sounds a little odd, but it works. Try it and see next time you're stuck :-)

2:37 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

Haha hey that sounds like fun, like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape? Actually any repetitive activity is good for thinking. You know how some people say chewing gum helps them think? Same deal.

My mum likes sewing and knitting for the same reason, although she gets so many ideas it takes her ages to finish something because she keeps having to stop to write stuff down. :)

Anything that bores the conscious mind and gets you into an alpha state will open your subconscious and let the ideas out.

Ball bouncing, juggling, it's all good.

11:43 PM  
Anonymous Dotti Culp said...

As I was reading your blog I laughed because I do come up with some real funny characters for instance when I was doing laundry and now I have written a story about the ever growing question of where the secound sock goes when you do the wash. I'm aways finding stories in the weirdest places thank you for your blog Dotti culp

4:29 PM  

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