Brain Pickings

How Creativity Works: Neil Gaiman on Where Ideas Comes From

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The power of desperation, deadlines, and daydreaming.

Beneath the eternal question of what creativity is lies the mystery of where good ideas come from and how we can coax them into manifesting. It’s a conundrum that has occupied artists, inventors, and philosophers alike since the dawn of human thought, but especially so since the dawn of psychology. We have Graham Wallace’s model of the four stages of the creative process from 1926, a five-step “technique for producing ideas” from 1939, Arthur Koestler’s famous “bisociation” theory of how creativity works from 1964, and a number of derivative modern ideas. The best answer, however, often comes from those who summon and wrangle ideas for a living, rather than merely contemplating the mechanics of the creative process.

In this wonderful excerpt from the Q&A after his December 2011 Wheeler Center interview, the ever-brilliant, ever-witty Neil Gaimanchampion of the creative life, disciplined writer, wiseman of literature, one romantic bachelor — answers every creative person’s most dreaded question: Where do ideas come from? At the heart of his answer is the recognition that creativity is combinatorial and that, like Koestler proposed, it relies on intersecting two seemingly unrelated ideas:

For me, inspiration comes from a bunch of places: desperation, deadlines… A lot of times ideas will turn up when you’re doing something else. And, most of all, ideas come from confluence — they come from two things flowing together. They come, essentially, from daydreaming. . . . And I suspect that’s something every human being does. Writers tend to train themselves to notice when they’ve had an idea — it’s not that they have any more ideas or get inspired more than anything else; we just notice when it happens a little bit more.

Complement with Gaiman on creative doggedness, the secret of genius, and his 8 rules of writing.

Photograph by Kimberly Butler

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