The Source of All Ideas

Every good idea I ever had, I stole from someone else. –Me

I mentioned Paul McCartney recently, and the documentary on Hulu about him and his life with the Beatles. In it, he talks a lot about the ideas that came to them that ended up in their songs. Sometimes it had to do with an approach to a song, the use of a particular instrument, or how the lyrics worked. One time he talked about a specific chord that he had never used before, and he ended up using it in a song that made all the difference in the song. Most of their ideas came from lots and lots of listening to other artists, and that includes not just rock and roll bands, but blues musicians, jazz musicians, soul artists and even classical. The album collection that John, Paul and the others had was extensive, and he makes reference to several obscure artists and songs that had seminal influence on the Beatles’ work.

Then he talks about the song, Yesterday. He says it is possibly his favorite song because the melody came to him complete one morning as he was waking up. An epiphany. He believed–as I do–that nothing springs from nothing, and so he went to John Lennon, and said, where does this melody come from? Where have we heard it before? John hadn’t heard it before, so they went to their producer, George Martin, asking him the same thing: where have you heard this song before? It was truly original, and it became one of his best songs.

And so it goes for any of us who consider ourselves creative. We get our ideas by observing others. Nothing comes from nothing, and as I said in the first line, every good idea I ever had, I stole from someone else. I have learned that all the “original” ideas I come up with today are a synthesis of other ideas that I have seen elsewhere. That’s why it’s important for writers to read books and stories, watch movies and talk to other writers. And fill your life with observation.

But what about epiphanies, as I mentioned with the song Yesterday? Well, the brain is funny that way. Sometimes you know where an idea comes from. It’s a collaboration of two or three or more sources. And sometimes the subconscious works on those ideas for a long time and comes up with something on its own. But that doesn’t mean it is truly original. You still need that exposure to the other works to be creative.

The other issue that comes up is whether writers should worry about other people stealing their ideas. The reality is, ideas are a dime a dozen. A publisher will never pay you for an idea. What they want is your skill to turn that idea into a story, something that will grab the reader and make them ask for more. I have published 24 books, have that many more (at least) on my to-do list to write before I’m done, and will probably never finish all of my ideas. But not all ideas are good, and not all ideas are something I really want to work on. So I get to pick and choose.

In the meantime, know that the more you write (the more you read), the more ideas you will come up with. It’s a never-ending cycle. That’s what makes it fun.