As someone who is creative and embraces the creative process, I, of course, have moments where I am stuck for ideas. And when I’m stuck for ideas, there’s nothing I love more than to go searching for wisdom from great writers.

I was trolling through Brain Pickings (as one does), when I stumbled across an article named: Ursula K. Le Guin on Where Great Ideas Come From, The “Secret” Of Great Writing, And The Trap Of Marketing Your Own Work.

I quote directly from the article here:

The more I think about the word “idea,” the less idea I have what it means. … I think this is a kind of shorthand use of “idea” to stand for the complicated, obscure, un-understood process of the conception and formation of what is going to be a story when it gets written down. The process may not involve ideas in the sense of intelligible thoughts; it may well not even involve words. It may be a matter of mood, resonances, mental glimpses, voices, emotions, visions, dreams, anything. It is different in every writer, and in many of us it is different every time. It is extremely difficult to talk about, because we have very little terminology for such processes.

Echoing Einstein’s idea of “combinatory play” and artist Francis Bacon’s notion that original art is the product of finely “grinding up” one’s influences, Le Guin speaks to the combinatorial nature of the creative process:

I would say that as a general rule, though an external event may trigger it, this inceptive state or story-beginning phase does not come from anywhere outside the mind that can be pointed to; it arises in the mind, from psychic contents that have become unavailable to the conscious mind, inner or outer experience that has been, in Gary Snyder’s lovely phrase, composted. I don’t believe that a writer “gets” (takes into the head) an “idea” (some sort of mental object) “from” somewhere, and then turns it into words and writes them on paper. At least in my experience, it doesn’t work that way. The stuff has to be transformed into oneself, it has to be composted, before it can grow a story.

The moment I read this, an image formulated in my mind. One that was yearning to be drawn, yearning to be written about, yearning to be digested and spewed out onto paper.

In all of our experiences, we filter the information through our brain and take in a little bit of every experience. Then, if we give it time to, the brain processes it, tries to make sense of it, gives us an appropriate response to that particular experience. It’s almost like a digestive processes, we inhale the experience, we chew on and digest it, then we produce something in the end, whether it be crap or not. There is always an end result.

There are three distinct parts then, that lead up and are causative of eureka or as Oprah famously calls them, aha moments.

Experience – Digestion – Idea

It is hence conclusive, that our ideas are a direct result of our experiences. The connection is blurry, because there is often a time lapse between the experience and the idea. The idea often only emerges once the experience has already become a memory.

If this theory is to be true, and I believe it is, we have to be very careful about the experiences we have. The mental processing unit of choosing our friends, the places we go, the time of day we do things, has to be stringent, informed and firm. But sometimes fires break out, or floods rush into this unit, and we don’t have control over the experiences that rush right into our lives with no pre-warning or even emergency bells.

That leads us on to the next part of the process: digestion. Can we choose how we digest our experiences? There are two different ways of digesting: we can either consciously or unconsciously make sense of the experience. I can choose to go into my mind palace, as Sherlock puts it, and break apart each aspect of the experience to find out what it can teach me. Or I can let my automatic digestive system, without knowing how its wired, do the learning for me. I can either end up traumatised and scarred, or grateful and wiser.

And the last, most precious part: The Idea. This doesn’t necessarily mean an ingenious invention, or an idea for a fabulous company. It could mean an idea about how to live your life. It could be an idea about your future, or about how to interact with the people around you. This idea could change your life.

When I started meditating, I came across the idea of imagining your mind as an ocean. When thoughts come through, they are just passing waves skimming the surface, never touching what is steadfast beneath. This method is useful when you’re trying to empty your mind or focus on one thing.

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa: Hokusai
The Great Wave Off Kanagawa: Hokusai

In the process of idea making, I find that it’s too easy to fall into the chaos of normal life. I find it necessary to empty the mind, to go into that ocean, and then begin noticing the waves that come by. The true magic happens when the waves are embraced into the deep sea, where they are digested, and then formulated into something beautiful.

If you’re stuck for an idea, go out and experience life. Then, think about and make sense of those experiences, no matter how arbitrary.