Carolyn Kaufman Psy.D.

Psychology for Writers

Where Can I Get Ideas? That's the Wrong Question

Is your creativity being crushed by unrealistic expectations?

Posted Jul 08, 2011

Recognizing ideas

That feeling of intrigue may mean you've found an idea.

Neil Gaiman used to joke that his came from the Idea-of-the-Month Club, while Harlan Ellison was once quoted as saying "Poughkeepsie."

But non-facetious answers aren't much more helpful, because they usually amount to something along the lines of, "Ideas are everywhere."

What most people are really asking famous writers is not where do they get ideas; what they are asking is, "Where can I get ideas?" 

But this is also the wrong question.

I've been thinking a lot about mental sets lately. Mental sets are thinking patterns that are keeping us stuck.  Usually when we're using mental sets, we don't realize it. We've become so used to thinking inside the box that we don't even realize that we've trapped ourselves.

"Where do you get your ideas?" or "Where can I get ideas?" are part of a mental set that suggests that story ideas are magical deliveries, and we simply need to know where to sign up to start getting them.

So your first task is to stop wondering where your favorite writer gets her ideas.  It doesn't matter how long you wait—you're never going to get a magical package with all the answers inside. 

What you need to do instead is become an active cultivator of ideas, and this requires two skills.  First, you must learn how to recognize ideas. Second, you need to know how to develop them into  material you can use.

Recognizing Ideas

If you're like most people, from time to time you've been hooked, captivated, and maybe even preoccupied by an image, a line in a song, or an unusual turn of phrase. Think about it—the whole point to movie posters and previews is to capture your interest and make you want to find out the story behind what they've chosen to show you.

But before you see that movie, or look up the rest of the song lyrics, or read the article accompanying the photo, or ask for the rest of the story behind that fascinating phrase, find a way to capture what has intrigued you. Oftentimes these things are small, easily dismissed, because they're not a full-blown story—just a glimpse of what could be part of a story. 

Don't dismiss them. Become a collector.

Put them in a notebook you reserve just for ideas. Or on Post-Its or notecards you can stick on a wall reserved for the same reason.

What to Do with Your Ideas

Waiting for the ideas in your notebook or on your wall to become stories is a bit like waiting for the house to clean itself.  Fortunately, developing the ideas is more fun than housecleaning.

Set aside some time (note that I'm not telling you to find time—you need to make time) to take one or two of the ideas from your notebook and play with them.  Just start freewriting, or mindmapping, or diagramming outward from that initial feeling of intrigue. What might be going on? Who is involved? What happened to get things to this point?  What will happen next?

Not everything you come up with will be good, but if you continue to record your ideas and spend time playing with them, you will not only be better attuned to new ideas, you will also produce a lot more material than you would otherwise—and some of it will be good.

Some of it might even be great.

There are a lot of people out there waiting for the next great idea to arrive special post.

It's time to stop waiting and start creating.

© 2011 Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD ♦ Psychology for Writers on Psychology Today 

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD is the author of The Writer's Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior.  More information is available on the book's website.