“All the good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.” Grant Wood (Iowa painter, American Gothic)
“The way to have a great idea is to have lots of ideas.”
Nobel Prize Winning American Scientist
Where do creative ideas come from?
Katie Couric once asked Jerry Seinfeld where his funny ideas came from and he said, “That’s like asking where trees come from.”
I hate to disagree with Seinfeld, but I think a better answer is ideas come from everywhere.
Here’s the formula that I’ve come up with; A+B = C. There doesn’t that help? (Can someone pass that along to Jerry?) This is how Seinfeld connects things: “Now why does moisture ruin leather? I don’t get this. Aren’t cows outside most of the time?” Basic, funny and original.
People that are a lot smarter than me call it dialectical logic. That’s when you connect two unrelated things. A+B= C is simply the result of something new after we’ve connect two unrelated things.
When I was a kid there was this commercial for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups where a guy comes around the corner eating peanut butter from a jar (like we all walk around doing) and another guys from around the other corner eating chocolate and they run into each other. The one guys say, “Your chocolate is in my peanut butter” and the other guy says, “Your peanut butter is in my chocolate.” But they try the PB/Chocolate mix and both decide it’s good.
A (peanut butter) + B (chocolate) = Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. (By the way, that’s why these blogs are so long because I keep making connections.) My goal is make them shorter.
Illustrator Gary Kelley says, “Creativity is connecting influences.” If you go into his studio you’ll find a menagerie of art books and torn out photos from magazines that are there to inspire him. Sometimes he tapes them to his easel.
Creativity is not something that only a few mystical souls can tap into. (Granted the quality of the Seinfeld’s creative ideas is what sets him apart.) Nor is it just limited to the arts.
The story goes that back in the 60’s when a couple guys bolted a sail to a door and made the first windsurfer and became very wealthy from their new invention. Thomas Edison’s inventions were the results of lots of creativity–as well as a lot of trail and error.
Another story goes that the founder of the zillion selling “Dummies” books was in a bookstore and overheard a guy ask a salesperson, “Do you have a basic book on computers? Like computers for dummies.”
(This story has been disputed. As they say, success has many fathers.)
Jack London said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”
Many of us are guilty of saying, “if I could just head to the beach or the mountains and just get a little place without all the day-to-day distractions then I could really get some ideas down on paper. No kids, no work issues. No people problems. Just a place of nirvana were the my creativity would be free-flowing.”
There’s a word for that—fantasy. And being from Orlando originally I can tell you that’s not Fantasyland. Ask anyone who’s ever worked at Disney World about kids, work issues and people problems. (Speaking of Fantasyland, does anyone else miss Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride?)
There was an episode on The Andy Griffith Show were Andy wants to be a writer and he get the typewriter and the cabin in the woods and he’s ready to go. As soon as he tidies up the place. It’s easy for writers to find reasons not to write.
After I go to this seminar…
When I get a new computer…
When I get that new software…
Then I’m really going to start writing. I’ve done all those things. I also used to buy pants a little tight because I was going to lose a few pounds. As the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
You need to go at inspiration with a club? Okay, but how do you do that?
“In action, there is power, grace and magic.” Goethe
You simply start writing. It may just be notes on a paper, but it’s a start. (I like Vicki King’s book How to Write A Screenplay in 20 Days because she pushes you to write.) It may not be any good. It probably won’t sell. (Though Stallone says he wrote Rocky in less than a week.) But you will learn a ton about writing and yourself. And it will give you confidence for the next script.
Musician Jimmy Buffett said on a 60 Minutes interview, “I’m not an every note kind of guy, I’m a capture the magic kind of guy.”
When you start writing you are taking those first steps toward capturing the magic.
The creative process is hard to explain and hard to show on film. But the movie Pollack with Ed Harris has a wonderful scene where we see the spark of creativity that became Pollack’s signature style. He’s in the process of painting when he accidentally spills some paint on the canvas and he does it again and then again. He has an epiphany, and it happens not while he’s reading a book on painting, but while he’s painting.
Creativity is a messy process. You’re going to get paint on your shoes. But you will make discoveries in the process.
A great example in the photography world is Ansel Adams. Adams was a brilliant photographer though it took decades of photographs before the world came to understand that. He would often go into the mountains with a donkey carrying his large format cameras and would often camp out to watch what the light would do.
He is known particularly for his early photographs in Yosemite National Park, but one of his most famous photographs is called Moon Over Hernandez. He captured that photograph late one afternoon while driving in New Mexico. By the time he pulled over and set up his 8X10 camera the light was fading fast and he couldn’t find his light meter so he had to guess on the exposure. His experience paid off but he was only able to take one shot before the light was gone on the cross that grabbed his eye. It is one of his most recognizable photographs.
He had a firm understand of his craft so he could recognize and opportunity when he saw it. He captured the magic.
Stephen King says that a writer he is like a paleontologist. He sees something interesting buried in the dirt and he goes over and brushes away the dirt. He’s unearthing stories.
What is important is to write down what you find. Comedian Rodney Dangerfield was asked how he came up with so much material and he said that three funny things happen to everybody everyday, he just writes them down.
One real estate expert says the secret to his success is “Always be looking.” When you need to find a deal on a house over the weekend it’s difficult. But if you’re always looking there’s a good chance you’ll find a good investment.
You need to cultivate looking for ideas. It may come in an article you read, a person you meet, or seemingly out of no where. Think of it like filling a blender with things that interest you. You mix it all together and out of the overflow comes your original ideas.
It is all about discovery. Recently I heard on the radio a fellow talk about what it’s like to re-enter the world after being in prison for years. He said when you first get out you’re in sensory overload. Colors are more vibrant; you hear sounds more clearly. He said when he first got out he wanted to run to people and say, “Do you see those colors?” His senses were alive.
Keeping your senses alive to the world around you heightens your experiences and makes you feel alive. And when our sense are alive we are more likely to be creative (idea-prone) because we are making new connections.
“ An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” James Webb Young
Or A + B = C
“An idea is a feat of association.” Poet Robert Frost
A + B = C
Arthur Koestler: wrote a whole book on the creative process and says this: “The Creative act…uncovers, selects, reshuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills.”
Stephen King writes, “Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”
The more you have in your brain to select and reshuffle, the more creative you will be. My favorite quote in regards to this comes from a creative giant of our day Apple & Pixar’s Steven Jobs:
“Expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then try to bring those things into what you are doing.”
Paul Schrader who wrote Taxidriver once thought he could write a screenplay with Bob Dylan but realized he couldn’t because while most people think in terms of one, two, three, A, B, C and Dylan thinks in terms of One, blue, banana. ( So in Dylan’s case it may be 1 + Blue + Banana = The Times They Are a-Changin’.)
Just a different way of connecting the dots. Like that fellow in A Beautiful Mind with his string connecting letters in newspapers. Although that’s a result where the mind goes into the realm of bizarre in making connections that aren’t healthy.
But I love the scene in Jerry Maguire after Jerry has been fired and he stands before the entire office and asked who is coming with him on his new venture. No one moves. His secretary says she’s close to another pay raise. Total embarrassment for the Tom Cruise character. He’s humiliated so what does he do? He turns to the fish tank and says “The fish are coming with me.”
And the fish become a motif throughout the film.
Chances are if you asked the screenwriter Cameron Crowe how he came up with that scene he wouldn’t know. But he captured the magic.
Pieces of April was written by Peter Hedges (who grew up in Des Moines, Iowa by the way) and is a story about a wayward young girl who wants to make amends with her family as her mother is dying of cancer and she wants to cook dinner for everyone at her small New York City apartment.
As her family drives in from the suburbs her oven breaks and her single goal in life is to find away to get the turkey cooked so it doesn’t turn into another family disaster. It’s a wonder film. Hedges said he heard a similar true story years ago and connected it with his mother dying of cancer.
So when you hear a story or have a thought that strikes your fancy write it down. Your own background and twist on life will give it originality. Juno was not the first unplanned pregnancy movie in history or even of 2007. But Diablo Cody’s slant gave it originality and that originality was what earned her an Academy Award. (Though I must add that just because your ideas is original don’t expect it to always be that well received.)
Cody has said in interviews that she doesn’t know where the idea for Juno came from. You can control the influences you put in your life, trying to force results is moving beyond the veil of mystery.
If Grant Wood really did get his best ideas while milking cows it could have been the regular, mundane, repetitive work that was the key.
Julia Cameron writes about this in The Artist’s Way. She quotes Einstein as having asked, “Why do I get my best ideas in the shower?” She said Steven Spielberg claims some of his best ideas come while driving on freeways. Many writers, (like Hemingway) have been regular swimmers and others (Stephen King) have been walkers. All activities that seem to stimulate creative ideas.
Musician Jack Johnson hits the waves as he told Rolling Stone magazine (March 8, 2008), “You’ve got to fill up your mind. When I get home from a tour, I put away the guitar and surf a lot. After awhile, the songs just start comin’.”
One person who often tops many people’s “most creative” list is comedian Robin Williams who is an avid bicyclist. That is an artist brain activity that fills the brain with images. One of the things that makes Williams fun to watch as he does improv is the rapid fire way his brain makes connections. (He is not only unusually gifted, but many people forget that he was trained at Julliard.)
An excellent book on ideas is How To Get Ideas by former advertising art director Jack Foster. And the documentary Comedian with Jerry Seinfeld shows the hard work of making funny connections as we watch him develop fresh comedy material.
Your creativity comes out of the overflow of the people, places, and things you pour into your life. So be curious and connected. Fill your blender with influences and the next time you need a creative surge remember the simple formula A+B=C.
If that doesn’t work try milking a cow.
Photo & Text Copyright @2008 Scott W. Smith