The question I am asked most—that every writer is asked most—is “Where do your ideas come from?” I have tried to answer this question before here. But, for some reason, when I received this question in my E-mailbox last week, I started to think about it again. It’s a frustrating question, not because it is a bad one, or an obvious one, but because it is such an essential one, and I’m not even sure that I know the answer.
I wish that I could tell you that they come when I’m relaxed, or when I’m happy, or when I’m concentrating hard, but the truth is that they often come at the most inconvenient times—when I’m driving, or showering, or cooking. In her fabulous TED talk about inspiration, Elizabeth Gilbert tells a wonderful story about Lou Reed. I’m paraphrasing, but one day, while he was driving along, Lou Reed caught a piece of a beautiful melody. He desperately wanted to hold onto it, and was furious that it had come to him at such a lousy moment. So he told it, “Can’t you see I’m driving? Go bother Leonard Cohen.” In ancient Greece, Archimedes struggled with the problem of how to be sure whether or not a crown was made of solid gold without melting or altering it. He realized the answer while stepping in the bathtub, and ran through the streets shouting, “Eureka!” People say that stepping into the bath gave him the idea of buoyancy as it relates to volume. But millions of people have stepped into millions of baths before and since, and only Archimedes thought of the solution to the problem of determining volume. So—where did that idea really come from? Where did Lou Reed’s idea come from?
I don’t know for sure. I know only that the world is speaking to us. We are surrounded by ideas and solutions—we have only to think of them. We must also be ready for them. When Lou Reed was not ready to hear the melody, he had to let it go. But a musician is always listening to the world—he trusted that a new melody would appear. Archimedes was searching for the answer to a problem, and when the world showed him something, his mind was ready to see the meaning. Writers need to have questions, the willingness to hear the answers, and faith that the ideas are out there. They will come to you.
Just hopefully not while you’re driving.