Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for December 12th, 2010

Where do ideas come from?

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For most people, this is an interesting, if abstract, question. For a writer, it can be a matter of life and death. One of the first things you learn as a working novelist is that you can’t depend solely on blind inspiration: a great idea comes uninvited maybe a couple of times a year, while a novel requires hundreds of great, or at least good, ideas. All writers eventually develop a set of tricks for turning the unpredictable workings of inspiration into something marginally more reliable. Over the next few days, I’m going to talk about some of the tricks that work for me.

The problem of generating good ideas on a regular basis, while challenging for anyone, is especially pronounced for a novelist, whose job requires qualities of personality that don’t always lend themselves to inspiration. A successful novelist has to be a bit of a drudge. Writing a novel is hard, fairly tedious work, with a lot of bookkeeping involved. It demands organization, planning, and the ability to sit at a desk for six or more hours a day. In short, it’s a left-brained activity. But the right brain is where ideas come from. And anyone who wants to write more than one publishable novel has to find ways of coaxing the right brain to life on a regular basis.

Colin Wilson, in his essay “Fantasy and Faculty X” (available in this book), describes the problem in a useful way:

…The right and left hemispheres operate at different speeds: the right is low, the left is fast. And this explains why they are out of contact much of the time. They are like two men going for a walk, and one walks so much faster than the other that he is soon a hundred yards in front, and conversation is practically impossible…

There are two basic methods for reestablishing contact between the two selves. One is to soothe yourself into a deep state of relaxation, so the left slows down. The other is to stimulate yourself into a state of intense excitement—the younger generation does it with loud music and strobe lights—so the right begins to move faster. Both these techniques have the same effect; the two halves are like two trains running on parallel tracks at exactly the same speed, so the passengers can lean out of the windows and talk.

Obviously, it’s hard to write to loud music and strobe lights, however fun it might be to try. But the opposite approach, that of slowing the left brain down, is more practical. Writers have used various techniques to accomplish this, ranging from self-hypnosis (which John Gardner describes in On Becoming a Novelist) to, more dangerously, alcohol and drugs. As I’m going to discuss this week, I’ve found two techniques to be especially useful: mind maps and intentional randomness.

Written by nevalalee

December 12, 2010 at 8:15 am

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