“Daddy, where do ideas come from?”

One of the thoughts that I try to remember to share each fall when I teach Digital Photography is the concept of art. “What is art?” I ask them, and the answers range from blank stares to “Nobody knows,” to “Everything is art.” I end up by telling them that, for the purposes of the class, art is something created that elicits an emotional response from its audience. We can be talking about photography, music, sculpture or literature, and one could use the same measurement. That, at least, is the measurement I use for students learning to take photographs.

Later, when I think they have somewhat mastered the mechanics of taking a photo, as well as the principles of composition, I start asking them, “What are you saying with this photo?” That usually stops many of them in their tracks and ends up annoying a heck of a lot more of them.

Invariably I have students who end the semester believing that good photography is whatever I like, and they will never figure out what I like.

But one of the challenges of art is the need to come up with an original idea. “There is no new idea under the sun,” is the old adage, and you know what? For the most part, it’s true. That’s probably the excuse for television executives trying to feed us the same story lines over and over again with each fall lineup. On the other hand, when you are dealing with a mass audience that wants to be spoonfed pablum, you’re options are pretty limited.

But going back to what I said a few lines up, I said it is mostly true. Authors who have innovative ideas really, really hate it when their readers and would-be writers ask, “Where do you come up with your ideas?” The usual response is, “It just popped in there,” which is really a copout. Ideas don’t just come out of the ozone. Unless you are talking about divine inspiration. There have been a few writers who have claimed that an angel came down and bonked them on the head and gave them their idea. Or that they had a vision from Buddha or the Virgin Mary or both. And believe me, I have met some of them. For the most part, they are looking for credibility, not sharing the idea’s true source.

Where do ideas come from? Where does art come from? From life. From experience. From reading. From observing. From synthesizing other people’s ideas and putting a new face on them. My Fair Lady is from the Greek Pygmalion. How many romance stories today started with Romeo and Juliet? Funny thing is, most of Shakespeare’s ideas came from the Greeks as well.

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King tells how he came up with the idea for his first blockbuster, the book Carrie. He was teaching high school English at the time and had first-hand observation of the hazing and taunting that high schoolers put on anyone who is different that the norm. At the same time, he read an article about telekenesis, and then he put the two ideas together. This was his first book, and in 1971, the paperback rights sold for $400,000.

An innovative idea. Something fresh. Yet something that he saw happening with his eyes, that he read about. He just put A and B together.

Once in a while you see a truly innovative idea come around. But for the most part, we tend to rehash the same old crap over and over again. It is the truly innovative idea–well executed and presented–that put you on the map.

But that’s not all. The question arises: is it enough to be innovative? Or is there more? I would say yes. Taking that idea in a direction that is meaningful, purposeful, is something we should all strive for. So what if you have a great idea. So what if you can write. What difference does it make in my life? That’s the real question we need to ask.

Some would argue that writing doesn’t really make a difference in people’s lives, nor should it. It’s strictly there for entertainment purposes. I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to invest 10,000 hours of my life learning how to write, it had better be important to me, and hopefully to those I write for. Entertainment yes, but hopefully with some life-challenging ideas as well. Life-u-tainment?

In any case, the key to coming up with new ideas is simply this: read, observe, live, then take time to process. And in the case of believers, give God a chance to talk to you by being quiet some times and meditating on Him.

That’s the news for today, children! See you in a day or two!

One thought on ““Daddy, where do ideas come from?”

  1. Do I spy another Fallout 3 reference at the bottom, there? ^_^

    I loved King’s memoir On Writing. Fantastic, and encouraging, while being truthful and unglamorous. I wish I had a copy of my own. I’ll get one yet, methinks.

    You make some really good and interesting points in your look at innovation in writing. I would just like to add two things. First, there is a difference between looking for innovation and desperately straining for innovation. forced “innovation” usually ends up being wild for wild’s sake, or worse. Secondly, I think that familiar ideas and plots can seem fresh and new when shown through a new lens. Sometimes, the framework may be typical, but when the author adds himself to the mix it becomes something much better.

    I suppose that’s what I’m hoping for in my Fantasy book series I’m working on. I’m definatly working within the genre, but I hope that what I’m adding, and tweaking, based on my own style is enough to make it its own beast.


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