Where Ideas Come From, Part I

I keep on my desk a copy of the New York Times Magazine “Inspiration” issue from last September. While I have no interest in celebrities and their stories, I love few things more than the discussion of Where Ideas Come From, so reading these stories is fascinating to me, never mind that I don’t know who most of the people are. I *have* read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, so I recognize Juno Díaz, and I love the details of the folder he claims as his inspiration, a folder filled with photographs and news clippings and the notebook he kept while writing about Wao’s life. It makes me want to follow him around (being invisible, of course) and watch him leaf through the folder and add things to it and pick up the photographs and turn them over, as if by watching him do these things, I could somehow see inside his head and watch how ideas were forming.


That’s impossible, of course. Two things I’ve discovered in the decades I’ve been talking to artists about their lives and work are 1) most creative people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about where they find inspiration or where they get ideas, and 2) when they do think about and kind of know the answer, they don’t really want to talk about it. It almost feels like a superstitious kind of reluctance, as if talking about it will jinx it. You know: you’re lucky to have this source of inspiration, and you know how valuable it is, and you don’t want to do anything to ruin it. Talking about it—saying out loud that you’re inspired by whatever-it-is—might make it dry up for you, so that you never have another creative idea and are forced to put away the watercolors and go back to work at the accounting firm, where you’ll make the big bucks but will have to wear a suit and orthopedic shoes.


Getting someone to actually sit down and talk about where ideas come from is rare, indeed, and so I spend a lot of time searching for clues and thinking about where my own ideas come from, hoping that will lead to conversations with others. For me, the single biggest source of inspiration is not being able to find what I want. This is true both for writing and for the stuff I make. I want something—a book about creativity, maybe, or an embellished skirt made from a pair of Levi’s—and see it in my head, just the way I want it. But, of course, I can’t *find* it, not exactly like I imagine it. So I have to figure out how to do it myself. I wrote Living the Creative Life and Creative Time and Space because I couldn’t find the books I wanted about creativity. I made a series of Journal Skirts, many of which appeared in other people’s books and most of which eventually sold (because I made way, way more than I could ever wear), because I couldn’t find a skirt anything like the one I imagined (and spent way too much time looking for before I gave up, designed my own, and got carried away).


I make things—written things, physical things—because I think they should exist but can’t find them. The ideas come from seeing something that’s kind of OK but not nearly what I think it could be: maybe a book that’s interesting but doesn’t have enough detail, or a garment that could have been fabulous if it had had a different shape and was a different color and didn’t have sleeves or a collar or. . . .


That’s what inspires me, but what inspires other people? On Friday we’ll talk about some of the ways others get inspiration–some of the few, rare nuggets I’ve been able to unearth through years and years of being incredibly nosy.


In the meantime, I’d LOVE to hear from you: where do you find inspiration? Post a comment; let’s have a discussion!


Ricë is the author of Living the Creative Life, Creative Time and Space, and Destination Creativity. She also blogs at The Voodoo Cafe.

Apter_Pulse_CoverIf you like thinking about and finding out what inspires other artists and where good ideas come from, check out The Pulse of Mixed Media by Seth Apter.





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One Response to Where Ideas Come From, Part I

  1. CarolineA says:

    Its very hard to express in words what inspires me as I seem to work intuitively. Touch and colour are very important,especially touch. I work with textiles and fibres, and the materials I work with tell me what they want to be, as I rarely know how my projects will turn out or look like when I start them. I see things other artists create, and think thats lovely, original or a good idea, but I never consciously draw on what I have seen, though I am quite sure that what I see percolates quietly in the background until its ready to come out, as happens with most creatives, because we don’t live in a vacuum and we do inspire one another.
    Like you, I make things because I cannot find what I want, so I create to please myself. Its the act of creation that is important. If others like my work and are happy to pay for it, that is an unexpected bonus.