Ideas are funny things. I seem to get my best/most interesting ideas (story-related or otherwise) when I am busy doing something else. If I sit down at the computer needing to come up with a great idea, I can’t do it. But get me busy doing something completely different, and I just might come up with something.
After months of dead ends, I finally got the idea for the (twist) ending of Aftershocks in the middle of the night, when my then-18-month-old son woke up crying and wouldn’t stop. As I trudged down the hallway to his room 99% asleep, it just hit me. The direction it took me in was a complete surprise. Years later, I got the idea for Psycho Ex while walking him home from school one day. As he spoke it was obvious that he had a serious crush on his first-grade teacher, and as I listened the idea materialized. And while I was out mowing the lawn last Tuesday, a trailer-worthy one-liner for Dead Guy was suddenly just… there.
So the best question for what I’m getting at here is not “Where do you get your ideas?”, because we all get them from the same place: life. I think the more precise way to ask the question is “When do you get your ideas?”. What are you doing when most of your ideas come to you?
It seems like (for me at least) the mind wants to censor itself. It puts too much pressure on itself for ideas to be “great,” so it avoids opening itself up and becoming vulnerable. So the more engrossed I am in something, and the more my conscious mind is completely occupied in flow, the easier it is for my subconscious mind to slide something in under the radar. I can’t be trying too hard – in fact I can’t be trying at all. It’s as if the more successful I am at stopping all effort, the easier everything comes. But this is hard work – I have to distract all of my consciousness with something else, not just some of it. 99% is not enough.
We all get many ideas – or maybe it’s just me – in that twilight zone between wakefulness and sleep, when the subconscious mind is still working but the critical and skeptical side has faded out. The problem with this is that, when I do get an idea, I often fall asleep playing with the idea, and it vanishes forever. The next morning I might remember the euphoria of getting the idea, but I never remember the idea itself. And although I have tried sleeping with a notepad and even a microcassette recorder within reach, this doesn’t work for me. To record the idea you have to consciously stop and wake yourself enough to grab the recorder or turn the light on, and I can never seem to do this. Or even if I do, I never seem to want to do this.
I get my best ideas in the shower – and I think this is because it’s the next best thing to being asleep. In the shower I am just waking up and my conscious mind has a task at hand, one which takes all the little bit of conscious energy and effort it can muster at that point. The rest of my mind is still in transition, still mostly asleep, and the menial task of taking a shower isn’t exactly rushing it to get moving. It’s like I can occupy a tiny bit of my mind with the shower and allow the rest of it to continue hitting the snooze button. Frequently a “eureka” moment can be the alarm to wake it up – and luckily I’m just awake enough to recognize the idea. And – more importantly – remember it.
Or while driving. Driving is good.
The trend – for me at least – is to find a way to get the critical, self-censoring mind to turn itself off, either by going to various stages of sleep or flow-induced meditation. This is surprisingly difficult for me – evidently I must be expending a lot of mental energy normally to prevent this. I have described writing – or at least my personal process of writing – to friends as a “need” and more precisely in terms of some kind of an addiction, and I think many writers would agree with this – or at least understand this – on some level. But an addiction to what, specifically? An addiction to procrastination? To sitting at the computer? I think it is an addiction to precisely this moment – the moment when the powerless buried subconscious mind gets to shockingly overtake the everyday conscious mind and reveal itself out of nowhere, when I least expect it. Maybe this is what I am hooked on. Maybe writing is the way I play out a desperate need to turn off the rational, self-censoring mind and find out just what else is in there, who the hell is in there. Maybe this is why I tend to get a “writer’s high” when I am totally into a script and writing on a daily basis, maybe the thrill of getting into this headspace and staying there and keeping the self-censoring mind out of the way for weeks at a time produces this rush… and I am hooked.
Did I go too far there? Or not far enough?
So when do you get your ideas?