In this article we will look at the process of creating ideas and offer some techniques to employ when creating your own. There is a mystique around creative people fueled by many cliched stereotypes, but all ideas are the result of hard work. When thinking up a story idea, character design or any other imaginative content, there is a basic structure to the process with some pitfalls and best practices to consider.
Where to start? With yourself. Find something you care about; if you truly care about it, chances are someone else does also. Lance Henson, one of my creative writing teachers, pointed out that the most personal subjects are also the most universal. Then gather information in the form of references similar to the content idea you want to create. For instance, if you wish to come up with an idea for a sci fi short story, read a few collections of sci fi short stories in order to immerse yourself in the genre. Or if you are thinking up a new fantasy character design, start by researching other designs with a Google Image search. Save the appealing search results in a folder and surround yourself with those visual influences. If you are excited about this collection of information, it will compel you to take a first pass at creating your own unique idea.
One definition of an idea is using the imagination to produce a novel combination of previously unconnected elements in a way that adds value, making the idea more than the sum of the parts. This definition sounds a lot like Synthetic Imagination as described in the book Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill (pp. 70-73). By studying pre-existing ideas and cross referencing them with your own experience and memories, new ideas are synthesized and brought into being. Synthetic imagination is the process of surrounding the mind with influential ideas, like a word map around the main subject in hopes of finding connections that will produce a new idea.
Another form of imagination Hill describes as Creative Imagination. A kind of waking dreamstate, this faculty is used think up unprecedented ideas which seem to come from “elsewhere”. Ideas from the creative imagination are often surprising and odd at first, but gradually become acceptable once the shock of the new fades. Surrounding yourself with nature or priming your work environment with quiet, soft lighting and things you find beautiful are all conducive to the creative imagination mindset. When engaging either the synthetic or creative imagination, it helps to be aware of the two frames of mind we use in the process of making ideas; Generation mode and Revision mode. Because these two are so different, it is important to keep them separate at the risk of compromising the process and never getting anything done.
First is generation mode; fast and intuitive, only focused on what is possible, and choosing freely from these possibilities. The field of positive psychology refers to this as the ‘flow state’, where we temporarily forget our identity while lost in the enjoyment of an activity. Psychologist Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi asserts that activities which put us in this flow state are a key component of happiness. When in this state, our hands often struggle to keep up with the outpour of inspiration. Right or wrong, good or bad are value judgements that belong to the revision mode of idea making. When you start to criticize your own work, like saying “this is wrong” etc., tell yourself “later”. Go back immediately into generation mode and complete the thought, even if it comes out rough or awkward. Creating a basic outline of the idea and getting it ‘on paper’ is the main concern of this mode of imagination. Then take a break and focus on something totally different for a few minutes, like sweeping the floor or taking a brief walk. The imagination is like a muscle in the sense that it becomes stronger with sustained use, but is subject to strain from overexertion.
Next, come back to the content idea in slow, deliberate Revision mode. This frame of mind’s concerns are quality and clarity. Here is that ‘later’ time to revisit the critical thoughts that arose while generating your idea. Take another look at word choices with a thesaurus; erase and redraw parts that aren’t working; add detail to the outline of your idea. Don’t fall in love with every idea, and step away when the process becomes strained or forced. When the revision phase is complete, the process of idea creation has run it’s course. Share your idea with others and listen to their opinions, accepting the fact that these opinions are legitimate in their own right, but nevertheless still only opinions rather than facts. Ultimately you are the final judge of the value of your efforts. If your creation pleases you, that is all that matters regardless if others like it or not.
By starting with your own passion, gathering information about it, generating an idea based on the informations influence, and then revising it, you will have begin creating ideas. Practicing this process is more important than the results of the process; I will always remember Lance Henson’s homework assignment to go home and write 10 bad poems.