The whole point of making a “Not-A-New-Year’s-Resolution” was to encourage myself to follow up on it, so another blog post is overdue! This time I’d like to describe my personal answer to the perennial question about writing, “Where do you get your ideas?”

For me the process of writing seems to be about making connections, and this can start when I form the idea for a brand new project. For example, last Saturday’s comedy set was inspired by a recent science article I’d read, and so all I needed to “create” was to decide on something that people would generally like to keep the same. With so many film and TV remakes recently trying to recapture the fun and excitement of the originals, it felt like society was providing an answer for me. The result (which you can catch up on at was a talk with plenty of laughs which sadly didn’t quite take home the prize, but was described as “one of the nerdiest talks we’d ever had”.

Another “secret” is that I don’t have to come up with an incredible idea right from the start. Several ideas that I’ve had have changed so much from my original concept that although you can still see the influence of the original idea in there, it feels like their entire purpose has changed. These newer ideas might appear more creative, but they’ve evolved step by step from what may have been a much simpler, more derivative idea. For example, an idea for a parody of one of my favourite TV shows has morphed into an examination of how to avoid abuses of power, and the clash of fundamentally opposing world views and how ordinary people will get squished in-between – I’m nothing if not ambitious with my projects, which probably explains why so few of them get developed! The trick is to find something that you can build on, and hopefully end up with something sufficiently original at the end by virtue of your mind coming up with different connections to everyone else*.

As an improv comedian, I can’t really talk about creativity and coming up with ideas without also talking about how I do this so quickly while performing. For me, one of the wonderful things about improv is that when you’re performing in a scene although there may be less good things to do, the fundamental of good improv is that everyone goes along with whatever has just happened in the scene – any idea becomes “right”. It takes a while to get used to this and trust yourself to go into a scene without an idea of where you are going to take it, or even start a sentence without knowing what you want to say, but some brilliant scenes I’ve been in have spun out of people reacting entirely in the moment.

Getting to the point of allowing your ideas to surprise you is very hard. To illustrate this, here’s a simple exercise that I’ve come across in a bunch of improvised comedy workshops. Wander around a room, and keep pointing at objects. When you do, say what they are, and do this all quickly so you’re just rattling the names off. Pretty easy, huh? OK, now try saying what the previous object was. I bet you’ll find this harder and have to slow down a bit. OK, now it’s time for a much harder challenge…

This time, point at objects and say the name of something they are not.

Bizarre, isn’t it? You could say basically anything and yet you’ll probably find it much harder than accurately describing what’s in front of you. You may have hit upon the trick of picking things from a category, like fruits, or realised that you could do the same thing as before and just name the last thing that you pointed at. These are both much easier – it can often seem that we’re hard-wired to make connections. A common suggestion for this exercise is now to just try making a sound, any sound, and then using that to start a word. This changes the challenge from coming up with a word without any stimulus to trying to find one that matches a certain pattern, and we’re back on safer ground. Of course, it requires a willingness to sound silly and sometimes you’ll end up with a horrible mish-mash of syllables. That’s OK, just move on to the next one.

The same is true of ideas. Take something from your life – an experience, a favourite show, a turn of phrase – and start making connections in your head. The first thing you thought of is just the sound to start you going, and it doesn’t matter if it’s awful, or even if any of your intermediate ideas are awful. They’re just the scribbles that you cross out on the way to your grand design. Free yourself from the expectation of having brilliant ideas and you might find that from a small seedling, a mighty oak may grow.

Of course, that’s just my take on it. Everyone has their own methods and I’m always up for trying out more. If you have any ideas on coming up with ideas or being creative and you’re willing to share, please comment below!

* Also remember that ideas are just a start – most of the brilliant art that’s around relies on the execution being good too – or at least interesting! But that’s another blog post…


Martin · February 1, 2016 at 12:03 pm

Seems quite plausible. A way of coming up with a research paper is to take an idea/technique you know and apply it to some different situation, or to change some parameter or assumption that is fixed in someone else’s paper (or a body of papers). Of course, that’s not really creative writing, but it’s still a creative process. I expect certain psychologists have thought about the creative process in some detail.

Banjulhu · February 1, 2016 at 12:06 pm

I would not say we seem to be hard wired to make connections but that we expressly are hard wired to make connections. Pattern recognition is what underlies all our ability to learn and on a more basic level how we survive.

So when we look at something we start to analyse it, connect it to things we have previously seen and work from. So when we faced with the nameing challenge it takes an extra step in the mental process to work out what it is and then work out what it is not before we call out and so we trend to pause that bit longer as we let our mind do its thing.

We can of course try to side step the whole process and force into place a different system like make a word from a sound but even that is tricky because it is often hard to get over the default settings of the mind

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