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The Birth (and the Evolution) of Ideas

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An intricate, architecturally precise spider web.

The world is a marvelous and mysterious place. It’s also fairly un-understandable, at least to me. String theory in physics is well beyond my understanding. I am equally baffled by the internet, by NFTs, by the resurgence of mom jeans and mullets. Oh, and what about the artistry of arachnids? I don’t understand how that level of precision is possible, or, how those filaments can be so sticky for a fly but not for a spider.

I also spend considerable time wondering about the human brain, how it works, how it thinks, how it makes so many millions of body-related things happen. Not that the gallbladder or ear bones aren’t marvelous. But those body parts specialize in, basically, a single job. The brain is the renaissance man of the organ world: our brain tells our legs how to walk and our eyelids to blink. It tells us when to laugh because something’s funny or sleep when we are sleepy. It creates, sorts, and stores memories–some but not all. It makes us fall in love (or not). It allows someone (not me) to pole vault. It thinks. It dreams. It wonders. And for us writers, our brains allow us to create stories, our own carefully-constructed filaments of silky sticky stuff. 

My brain and I also spend a lot of time thinking about creativity, especially when it comes to storytelling. How does a brain generate an idea? And specifically how do we writers come up with an idea for a story? 

A few weeks back, an email landed in my inbox advertising a webinar called “Where do ideas come from?” and as I was on spring break and as I needed some help with the ideas in my pesky, crazy-making WIP, I hopped on the Zoom call and was delighted by what Joyce Hesselberth, writer and illustrator and all-around creative soul, had to say about ideas. 

The seminar didn’t help me understand the neuroscience of ideas or why I wonder about arachnid architecture, but it most certainly got me thinking about how I can lubricate the idea-making portion of my brain squiggles, about how I can put myself in situations where, somehow, my cerebral soil will yield the most ideas.

Here’s what I came up with (you’ll get to share too):

Notice. When I take my dog on a walk, I bring my phone along so I can listen to a book or call a pal, or at the very least, track my steps. But the other day, I forgot my phone, and while I considered going back (why do I care about tracking steps?) I proceeded to walk, phoneless. 

And boy, did I notice! The fragrance of some species of some springtime flowering bush. The symmetry of leaves. A bee’s bumbling tenacity: Do bees see all colors and smell all fragrances? Is it the stinger that gives bees such a bad rap, or is it their classification of “insect”? Do female worker bees feel any bitterness toward or envy of the queen?

I noticed a school bus parked in someone’s driveway: Where does one buy a school bus? And why? Would I like to own a school bus? I think I would like to live in a school bus … but why? Why on earth did I just think it would be fun to live in a school bus?

I noticed a snail, gooeying up the sidewalk with stoic, silent, steadfast, slowness: Where was she going? What was her goal? Do snails feel stress? Does she like her whorled shell or does she wish she had her cousin’s sleeker, more aerodynamic whorls?

Questions bubble up when we notice.

Eavesdrop. I bet you already do this. My husband has learned to understand that, when we are working at a coffee shop or dining out, it’s impossible for me to ignore the conversations of others. 

“What did you figure out?” he will ask. He knows I have fabricated an entire story based on the snippets of conversation I have extracted. 

“I don’t know exactly,” I say, “but when is she going to learn to stand up for herself? How can she be so unaware of how she’s being treated? Has she always been such a doormat?”

Questions bubble up when we eavesdrop.

Consort. If ever I am feeling creatively constipated, I switch genres and pick up a book of poetry, usually Pablo Neruda or Wislawa Szymborska. This gives me a break from my long-winded narrative so I can instead look at how, in a poem, ideas and questions are distilled and condensed into stanzas where no word or bit of punctuation is frivolous. Or I look at maps … or books of maps. My favorite: You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination. a collection of maps and “charts of places you are not expected to find, taking you on a voyage of the mind … a breathtaking view of worlds, both real and imaginary.” Maps remind me to notice what others notice about the geography of, yes, land masses, but also how others map fictional worlds of, for example, The Wizard of Oz. Or the lines on our palms. Or the journey (including both intentional and unintentional detours) of a marriage. Does the landscape of our palm really reveal something about our personality or our future? Can matrimony be mapped, and what is the map of my own marriage? Does the Wicked Witch of the West live in a distant, imaginary realm, or does she reside, clad in striped stockings, just down the street?

Questions bubble up when we explore different genres.

Follow. Ideas happen when we follow the question. When we pay attention to an itch. When we put ourselves in unfamiliar places. When we steal and reconfigure. When we read other writers’ literature, listen to others’ music, study others’ art. Once we start paying attention to the bubbling questions, we can follow those unanswered (or unanswerable) questions, and occasionally, those questions will dump us right into a story. 

Do all stories start with an idea-seed that comes in the form of a question? Probably not all stories. But so far, mine sure do. 

If you’re curious about creativity, this is a beautiful article from The Smithsonian that I stumbled upon and loved, partly because it validates the idea that all ideas “have a genealogy” and that “prior art propels the creative process.” It also taught me just a little bit about sea squirts, creatures that, for most of their life, live a remarkably uncurious, uncreative existence … yet are incredibly beautiful, unique works of art.

Your turn: What don’t you understand about the world? Where and when is your brain’s idea factory most productive? What is the idea, in the form of a question, that has blossomed into a story? Would you like to own a school bus?

Thank you, as always, for reading and for sharing!

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