I said I wasn’t going to get into a whole slew of posts about copying and other people’s ideas and all that, so this isn’t going there. But Monday on my blog over at The Voodoo Cafe, I wrote about my own inspiration, about getting ideas and putting them all in my brain and letting them perk and simmer and meld. In thinking about this, I realized that one problem for many of us may be that we don’t trust our ideas. We trust what we see other people do–if someone else made it, it must be good. But those ideas tumbling around in our own heads? Eh. Maybe not so great.

Why is that? Well, besides just basic old lack of self-confidence, of course. We all know that one from time to time. But beyond that, I think it’s because we’re not taught to work with ideas. We’re never taught to take the germ of an idea and work with it, experiment and test and tweak and water and tend and cut back and–whoa. Am I mixing metaphors or what?

We maybe think ideas show up fully formed, perfect in every way, ready to go: you wake up with an idea, sit down and make whatever-it-is, and it’s perfect. And if it’s not? Then it wasn’t a good idea. Or, worse yet, we’re a failure.

That, of course, is ridiculous. Why do we believe that’s the way it works? It’s because we grow up hearing stories of ideas happening in just that way: Kekulé and his dream of a snake with its tail in his mouth that, upon awakening, gave him the key to the structure of benzene, or of Coleridge and “Kubla Khan,” also the result of a dream. We hear of those forehead-smacking moments of inspiration by artists and scientists, poets and writers, and we think that’s the way ideas come. Any other way is suspect. Or it means it’s not a really great idea.

In truth, of course, Kekulé had been working on the problem of benzene for years, and Coleridge had nodded off into his opium dream after reading about Xanadu, and almost every stupendous, life-changing moment of inspiration arrives after some serious percolating up there in someone’s brain. When we realize that, we realize we’re just as capable of coming up with fabulous ideas as anyone else; when we don’t, we think that other people are just way more talented and original and creative and inspired than we are and that their ideas and the things they create are more valuable.

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Instead of looking for inspiration in things that someone else has made, what we need to do is develop our own sense of curiosity and what if. Look at things, think about things, wonder about things. What would happen if you nailed paper to metal? What would happen if you enlarged a page from your journal to the size of your studio wall?

This is what sparked the project I wrote about in my blog post, “Anything is Possible.” What would happen if I kept adding dye to a dye bath without mixing it? Would it mix by itself, or would it do something else? It turns out it did something else, something fabulous and exciting for me because of the possibilities it creates for surface design, giving me a whole new way to pursue an idea I worked on years ago.

Of course we get ideas from other people’s work–I got the idea for a flat wrap from the poncho pattern in Alabama Studio Sewing + Design. I got instructions for dyeing The Right Way from–I learned how to do it following the rules before I began to experiment. I got ideas from places I can’t even remember. The key is not to stop with one idea–something you see and like and think, “Oooooh! I like that!” If you stop there and set about trying to make whatever it is that’s captured your fancy, you haven’t even begun to tap into your own ideas. Don’t shortchange them–they’re up there, waiting for you to feed them and give them a little light.


Ricë also blogs at The Voodoo Cafe.


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