Where do ideas come from? There’s all sorts of answers to that question, or refusals to answer, but it’s really pretty simple. For example, in the podcast Writing Excuses, the first episode makes some interesting observations about when ideas come to you and how to capture them.
They discussed several examples, and boiled them down to three common factors. You’re doing something boring, with no distractions, and your mind alert. You might be walking, driving, or doing chores. You are not listening to anything, not even music; music engages your mind and keeps you from thinking up your own ideas. And your sustained physical activity is oxygenating your brain and keeping your mind buzzing.
Sometimes you get interesting ideas while falling asleep or waking. Like dreams, those ideas are particularly vulnerable. If you don’t write them down right away, you’re going to lose them. But then, like dreams, those ideas may not make a whole lot of sense.
As for capturing ideas, I’ve tried some of the digital-age solutions, like a voice recorder, or calling up your own voicemail on your cellphone. Of those, the only one I’ve kept is notepad software on my Palm. The best technology is the oldest: it’s really hard to beat the portability of pen and paper in your pocket.
For me, the most valuable insight in the podcast was the injunction to turn the music off, turn the podcast off, turn the radio off. If you need ideas, you don’t want to entertain yourself while doing a boring activity. You need to make it more boring. That way your mind will respond to the unbearable need to stop the boredom by coming up with all sorts of crazy ideas.
So where do ideas come from? The void.