Imagination & The Origin of Ideas

Today I learned that Gene Wilder passed. Though I will admit to not giving him much thought in my everyday life, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is one of my favorite movies. If only for the song Pure Imagination, and all of the imaginative, crazy things in the movie. I was a child who always ended up in trouble for daydreaming. I’ve never lacked imagination, and this song makes me feel good about it and forget all the scoldings I received. And that leads me to my first official blog post:

Where do I get my ideas?

For a long time I’ve been puzzled and semi-irritated by this question. I was like, what do you mean? Where do you get your ideas? But as more people have asked me, both writers, readers and strangers, I’ve come to realize that they aren’t asking for small talk. They’re asking because they truly don’t know. And this boggles my mind.

I’ve grown up with an artistic mother. My mom is the one you see in the movies who has craft supplies on every surface. Paints, crayons, coloring pencils, stencils, clay, glass bead materials, jewelry materials, fabrics and sewing machines, wires and tools of all shapes and sizes. Everywhere. She’s tried multiple times, without fail, to interest me in one of those crafts. I’ve tried everything, and am interested in everything. I just wasn’t interested enough to want to do it myself. In the end, I was drawn to a creative field she’d never tried to get me interested in: writing. And it worked far better for me, because I didn’t need anything but an idea to get started. For me, ideas flow like water. But I’ve only just discovered how the opposite is true for many people out there.

So where do ideas come from?

Maybe I’ve been stumped all this time because this question is so huge. So complicated, despite its simplicity, that I haven’t had the time to explain. But no longer. Let’s break this thing down.

a-world-of-pure-imagination-gif-in-willy-wonka-and-the-chocolate-factory

What are ideas? Let me crack open a dictionary for you (hey, I said we’d break it down, right?):

1. any conception existing in the mind as a result of mental understanding, awareness, or activity.

2. a thought, conception, or notion

Then, skipping to 6, which I most appreciate: a groundless supposition; fantasy.

Now, what do we get from these definitions? From one, I’d like to highlight the word “awareness.” You must be aware of the world around you to then be open to definition two: thoughts, conceptions, or notions about said world. Which will lead to six: fantasies. And that’s what ideas are. Fantasies about the what ifs of this world.

Now where do they come from? Think about air. Where does it come from? Answer: everywhere. The air we breathe is above and below us, to our left and to our right. You can’t point to the ground and say that is the only place air comes from. It is the same with ideas.

Ideas can just as quickly come from a simple phrase as they can from some sort of magical/freak accident or event. I’ll take you through my thought process for developing ideas. The other day I passed by a field of trees whose roots were half-submerged in water, so it looked like the trees were rising from the drying lake and moving to another location. As I drove, I continued to think of them. The what ifs started in my head. And so the conversation with myself went as follows:

What if trees could sense dangerous situations and simply pick themselves up and walk by the roots to new locations? What if this was common knowledge? What if it wasn’t? What if the earth was in a state that there was nowhere for the trees to go? What if, then, they spent all their time wandering around and looking for a new home? What would that mean for us as humans? Now there would no doubt be tree crossing signs and they’d be all in the way. Maybe there would be tree hunting or something—no, that’s stupid. Or is it? What if they became capable of intelligent thought? What if they could communicate with us, or us with them? What if, what if, what if…

On an on that conversation in my head went until I had a vaguely fleshed out story idea that I fully intend on writing one day. I got home and typed it up, then locked it away in my “story vault.” Yes, I have a folder on my computer named story vault. Because I have so many ideas that started out just like the one above that I had to find a way to keep up with them all.

“We’ll begin with a spin, travelling the world of my creation. What we’ll see will defy explanation.”

When you’re aware of the world and the tiny details around you, it seems to me that it should be nearly impossible not to get ideas. A dog dragging his human around could lead to the what if of a world where we exist to serve animals. A crumpled old building or a cabin covered in moss could lead to the what if of an earth that rebels against us and aggressively starts trying to fix itself and get rid of us humans altogether. A couple arguing in the street could lead to the more realistic what ifs of a romance novel or a thriller.

Or is that just me and how my crazy mind works?

I feel like I’m not explaining this right. But it’s the only way I know how to explain it. I just feel things and see things, and my curiosity leads to questions and those questions lead to thinking about ways I could answer them in my fiction. Awareness leads to questions, questions lead to fantasies. Those fantasies are ideas. Those questions are ideas. Ideas are everywhere. You just have to open your mind and change your thinking to receive them as such.

“If you want to see paradise, simply look around and view it.”

So for those of you who have trouble getting ideas, I’m going to give you an assignment. Pick a place—any place—and have a seat. Or stand—Whatever you choose. I want you to look around for a good five to ten minutes. Use all your senses and all the emotions you feel in those minutes and open up your mind. What do you see, hear, smell, feel? What’s the most dominant emotion inside of you at that moment? What stands out to you? What doesn’t stand out? Who is there? What are they doing? Are there animals around? Is the place in good shape? Ask yourself what ifs, no matter how crazy they sound. If you’re in a cluttered room, you might ask something like what if this room isn’t messy enough? What if someone lived here who wanted it to be messier? Why would they want that? Etc, etc. I can almost guarantee you that no matter what genre you write or read, you can come up with a good story idea if you do this assignment. Give it a shot.

For all the artists out there, I’m interested in your process for finding ideas. Does it come naturally to you, or is it difficult? If it’s difficult, can you tell me why? The same way others are confused with how I get so many ideas, I’m confused by those who don’t. I’d love some enlightenment.

“There’s no life that I know to compare with pure imagination. Living there you’ll be free, if you truly wish to be.”

RIP Gene Wilder.

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