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Where Do Great Ideas Come From? by Rachel Hamilton

Where Do Great Ideas Come From? by Rachel Hamilton

This week’s blogpost is by Rachel Hamilton.






Something that’s been intriguing me recently, while I’ve been coming up with ideas for my kids’ detective story, The Case of the Exploding Loo, is the question of where great ideas come from.

Elizabeth Gilbert (author of the hugely successful Eat, Pray, Love) gave a great talk called ‘Your Elusive Creative Genius’, during which she explained that in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome:

People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source for distant and unknowable reasons. The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity ‘Daemons’ … The Romans had the same idea but they called that sort of disembodied spirit a ‘Genius’, which was great because the Romans did not actually think that a genius was a particularly clever individual, they believed that a genius was this sort of magical divine entity who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist’s studio.

I love this idea of being the landlady of a creative genius. It stops you turning into a big-headed show-off if things go well, and gives you someone to blame if your book stinks … “Hey! The creative fairies did it.”

But how do you differentiate great ideas from dodgy ones? We all have thoughts, all the time, and they’re not all ‘great’ – ‘Did I leave the oven on?’ ‘Should I buy brown bread or white?’ ‘Oh, look, it’s raining again!’

I suspect if we pay too much attention to the bleurgh, zzzzzzzzzzzzz thoughts, we’ll miss the inspiring ones. At least that’s my excuse when I burn dinner.

The best ideas seem to come when we’re not paying attention to any particular thought, when our far-too-busy brains are at peace – in the shower, driving home, walking along the beach, or just falling asleep.  Great ideas come when you give yourself the space to find them.

Some people turn this into a routine … a period of the day to relax, meditate, or await inspiration. One of my favourite quotes is by Somerset Maugham:

I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.

Another of my favourite quotes came from my 9 year old son, when I noticed he never joined in with the other kids playing football and basketball at break time and asked him whether that made him feel lonely. He looked at me as if I was crazy, and explained:

I don’t have time to play those games. I need my break for day- dreaming and coming up with ideas for characters and new inventions.

Nice! And his words helped me understand why I often find myself turning down invitations or inventing excuses to stay in my pyjamas. I’m proud and slightly envious of my son for recognizing at such a young age how important it is to steal time for yourself to just sit and think.

Sadly, this kind of ‘anti-social’ behaviour is often punished, or stigmatized as being ‘weird’ or ‘lazy’. But it is a vital part of the creative process and is something we should be aware of when we’re stuffing our children’s days full of educational events and extra-curricular activities.

As my hero, Neil Gaiman, said, when asked to explain where he gets his ideas from to a group of seven year olds:

You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.

You get ideas when you ask yourself simple questions. The most important of the questions is just, What if…?

(What if you woke up with wings? What if your sister turned into a mouse? What if you all found out that your teacher was planning to eat one of you at the end of term – but you didn’t know who?)

Wonderful stuff.

I’m worried I’ve made idea-generation sound pretty solitary. It doesn’t have to be. In fact, it shouldn’t be. In his talk, ‘Where do Great Ideas Come From?’ Steven Johnson explains that truly great ideas tend to be the result of interaction between creative people in an environment of collaborative, interconnected creativity. The vlogbrothers make a similar point and pioneered the idea of collaborative youtube channels.

Historically, this ties in with cases of great artists, authors, and thinkers emerging together, and producing their best work as part of a group. Brian Eno describes this as ‘scenius’:

Scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.

This notion of communal genius makes sense for several reasons:

  • It creates an atmosphere of mutual appreciation and friendly competition:
  • It facilitates the exchange of ideas, tools and techniques
  • It protects – even encourages – the outlaws, the rule-breakers, the mavericks, the true creatives who are too often suppressed and silenced by the world around them.

Famous examples in modern literature were the Inklings in Oxford during the 30s and 40s, or the equivalent Bloomsbury Group that grew up around Cambridge. The scientific equivalents are probably Building 20 at MIT, or Silicon Valley

To wrap this mental moustache-stroking up, I would say that great ideas seem to come to those who give themselves the space they need to interact with their creative fairies.

And, I would suggest that any of us lucky enough to find ourselves in the company of ‘scenius’ should help ignite that spark of excitement; protect the more quirky, marginal members; and connect and collaborate in ways that encourages entire communities of creative fairies to move in, rent free – however inefficient, inconvenient and verging on bonkers that may sometimes seem.



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