Where do you come up with your ideas? I get asked this question a lot. I asked other artists if they get hit with this question and nearly everyone I talked to met my question with an eye roll and a sigh. Nobody likes answering this question because the answer presupposes that there is a boilerplate answer that is universal for artists across the spectrum. In reality, the answer varies from person to person and people who ask this question usually have an answer that they’re looking for before you actually try and give them your rationale. This is why a question about ideas – a topic most artists would normally love to talk about – is met with the kind of passive aggressiveness normally reserved for teenagers. We’re not normally this rude it’s just a hot button topic for most artists where whatever answer we give will be seen by the questioner as either insufficient or disappointing. Since memoir and creative nonfiction are my preferred genres I haven’t had to deal with this question very often. Now that I find myself journeying more and more into the realm of fiction however I’ve found that this is the default question that most non-creative types have for me. My experience has been that people expect your answer to this question to be a revelation and trust me, it never is.
I think that creativity and imagination are things you either have or don’t have. It’s not necessarily better or worse to have this ability. I just meet a lot of people who are not creative who think that they can “make” themselves creative. That is – at least in my view – where this question of inspiration coming from people who don’t have what I call “the creative drive” often find themselves lost or suffering from a disease they call “writer’s block” and the rest of the world calls creativity. It’s insulting to suggest that you would be much better at executing creative ideas because you have “real world experience” getting things done. It implies that those of us who are creative are not only incompetent but idiots who don’t even understand the gifts that we have. I hear this all the time that if person A or person B had the talent that I had they’d be making much more of themselves than I am in my life. Do you have any idea how hurtful that is to suggest and how mind-bogglingly arrogant? Now, I’m not sure what percentage of the population has the creative drive but my guess is that the number is very small. True creatives are incredibly hard to find and if you find them you’ll likely discover that they’re even harder to tame. My opinion on this matter does not come from a position of elitism rather from a position of frustration and I can all but guarantee that this is the sentiment behind my fellow artists’ eye rolls and sighs.
Everyone is different. We all have things that make us unique. We have a tendency however to get absorbed by envy and this can lead to terrible consequences. Many of the world’s villains have been guided by the belief that the world owes them something. Get that idea out of your head right now. The world doesn’t owe you anything. The sooner you can look at the world less in terms of fairness and more in terms of chance the happier you’re going to be. Everyone seems to know that life is not fair yet few appear able to accept it. Every person I’ve ever met who was unhappy with their life had some underlying belief that they were not being treated in a manner that they deserved. Let me clear about one thing: no one gets what they deserve. I’ve done bad things in my life; things that I have not, at least in this life, been adequately punished for. There are people who do great things every day who don’t get the acclaim they deserve, but that’s life you can either accept it or become a James Bond villain. Acceptance is one of the hardest things in life to accomplish. I don’t think anyone ever truly accepts anything fully. Everyone years for something they don’t have. That’s why we get up in the morning. You don’t have to let this ruin you though.
What bothers me about the creativity complex, which what I call the want of creativity among non-creative types is that the implication is that it doesn’t take any special skill or talent to be successful in creative endeavors. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only do you have to be brilliant you need to be willing to compromise and work with others; two key things that I have struggled with throughout my career, in order to be successful. I know so many people who are much smarter than me, much more skilled at their craft than I am, and with much better connection that I could ever hope to have who fail at their job because they are unable or, as is more often the case, unwilling to compose or work with others. I always joke that I’m perfectly willing to sell out, I just need to make sure I’m selling out to the right people. Everyone sells out. You have to. The only pure gold scripts in Hollywood are the ones that will never get made because once a script gets thrown into the creative process people start meddling with core ideas and concepts and as soon as your ideas have been muddied by the thoughts and work of other there is no going back. Even if you were 100% opposed to the idea you’ll never look at it in the same light ever again. It’s the old “nothing can be unsaid” rule applied to filmmaking and you better have a clear idea of what you’re doing before someone else gets involved because one they’re involved they can’t be uninvolved even if they’re fired and their words are burned at the alter. Ideas last a lifetime.
Ultimately, where I come up with my ideas isn’t nearly as important as why I come up with them. Once you figure out what you want to say it’s just a matter of determining how you want to say it. The question of where one comes up with their ideas is, to the non-creative mind, a question of process as opposed to a question of context. Sure, I could explain how I managed to turn my thirty-minute commute to school everyday into a productive brainstorming session about the Founding Fathers, but most people would simply come away with the conclusion that I’m weird, which is something I could have told you ages ago if forming a concrete judgment on the question of my normalcy was what you were inquiring about I think it’s much more important and will in all likelihood lead to a much more substantive discussion if we discuss why I do this. You see, I live in my mind. It’s the only place I’ve ever been accepted. I could go on at length about how no one has ever truly accepted me for who I am, but that’s not what you’re interested in. You want to know how to think like a highly creative person. The best advice I can give you is to start thinking about the world around you with two questions in mind: why? and why not? Apply this to everything and you will have some insight on how I come up with my ideas. Start by asking obvious questions: why can’t I get what I want in life? The answer will most likely be because you’re approaching your life from the perspective of the person you are and not the person you want to be. Find a way to be the person you want to be and you’ll not only lead a happy life, but one that you’ll be proud to have lived in the end.