Where Do Ideas Come From?

I write poetry.

Not as well as I’d like.

I would love to write better poetry as I love the art form because of its precision. The best poets can capture something essential about their topic, express what they have to say in a way which is fresh or moving.

As part of my ongoing struggle to be a better poet, I have joined the Poetry Society. For a modest annual subscription, you get four delicious pamphlets each year delivered to your door. That’s great, but what I really like is the poetry competitions for members. Each quarter, someone comes up with a theme for the next poetry competition. They then invited members to send in their best efforts. I enjoy being prompted to think about something new, and I always look forward to these competitions.

A recent set theme was ‘The Lesser Loss.’ Set by Jenny Lewis; she explains what she’s looking: ”The phrase is taken from a quotation by French scholar and translator Anne Le Fèvre Dacier (1647-1720), the first woman to translate The Iliad, in relation to rendering Homer into English.Dacier preferred prose over poetry, claiming that it “affords the lesser loss. Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle ‘The Art of Losing’ looks at ‘lesser losses’ too, from a very different, ironic angle,” adds Jenny. 

“There is also Lucy Locket who lost her pocket and any number of famous people, real and imagined, who regret or celebrate some kind of loss."

When I thought about The Lesser Loss, it seemed such a beautiful but elusive concept. What survives in Dacier’s prose translation preserves more of the true meaning of the original, even if in doing so the music of the original words, their rhythm and sound. It conveys a sense of what survives of a thing, even after the thing has passed.

I decided this was worthy of some further digging and began by simply brainstorming a list which began like this:

  • dementia
  • amputation
  • fire
  • inundation
  • etc

I quickly realised that each of these concepts would require considerable development. To begin with, what in each case was the lesser loss?

As I fiddled around, I gathered sources, internet searches, articles, and other poems. I added to these by considering vocabulary that might be appropriate to each idea.

Pretty soon I had too many pieces of information. I scattered them across various apps (Raindrop.io, DEVONThink, Ulysses, Instapaper, etc) and I had scribbled notes on the margins of books and in my notebook. As I sat back and considered what I had, I felt overwhelmed. This was frustrating, because the notion of the lesser loss is quite slippery and if I wasn’t careful, I would easily lose the wood in the trees.

What I needed was a way to see the branching logic of my thoughts …

None of my apps could provide me with a unified and unobstructed view of my ideas.

My ideas were literally all over the place. To further complicate things, it wasn’t clear which of my various notes, clippings and saved documents was in fact to do with an idea, or a dead end or just interesting but not relevant to the task in hand.

Over the next week, I worked through what I had and considered how best to organise and use what I had generated. I will write about that process another time. Having got (after much blood, sweat and tears) an overview I was happy with, I could see for the first time the idea development process I had unwittingly used.

These are my observations.

1. A high-level concept to work on is useful if not too tightly prescribed.

The Lesser Loss worked as a stimulus for new ideas because it was, to a degree slippery, difficult to pin down. That precision about the meaning was hard to accomplish forced me to think about analogies. What kinds of theme could I develop which were analogous to the depletion of language but not meaning Dacier described?

This way of thinking about problems by searching for analogies turns out to be important. In Where Do New Ideas Come From?, Virginia Hughes talks about analogy theory:

Creative people, the theory goes, are constantly connecting old knowledge and experiences to new situations

The analogy theory also suggests that the further apart the two analogues are, the more likely a radically new idea will emerge:

According to the analogy theory, it’s because making analogies requires thinking across traditional mental categories. In fact, some cognitive scientists have proposed that the farther the analogy—that is, the farther apart the previous experience and new situation—the more likely it will lead to a radically new idea.

The lesser loss is hard to be precise about, which it turns out is useful fuel for ideation because it drives the use of analogy — the thought underlying each new potential idea being, how is this analogous to Dacier’s lesser loss?

2. Organising your thoughts can help creativity

Prior to this competition, I thought of ‘personal productivity’ and its tropes as all to do with doing things. You know, writing your tasks, capturing new tasks, getting your various inboxes to zero, doing weekly reviews and so on.

I blew hot and cold on productivity over the years. I’ve designed personal systems before, which borrow from what others have written on the topic, and while no longer a slave to any one system, I’m probably well organised.

It never occurred to me until now that some (not all) of the productivity ideas could help generate better ideas. Having built my idea generation, storage and processing system, I believe I am better prepared to be more creative. As Dustin Wax has written, being ready to receive new ideas, being curious (and rigorous) and putting in the requisite effort to capture your ideas and work on them, are useful qualities to develop if you want to be more creative.

3. It helps to think about system and process

Reflecting on what I learnt from the Lesser Loss competition, I can now see that I followed a process to end up somewhere useful. It wasn’t perfect, but it has opened the door to further refinement. In the future, I can use a process template to put me into an optimal state for creativity. It helps that I can relax about storing, linking and retrieving my ideas when they come, because I have built a system to do that for me.

It was interesting looking back to notice how much relief I felt once I knew I didn’t have to remember where all my interesting snippets, articles, notes and so on had gone. I had fallen foul of what Christian Dietze from Zettlekasten refers to as The Collectors Fallacy.

As Christian points out (quoting from Umberto Eco)

'Preparing reading material alone doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s quite common that students prepare lots and lots of photocopies of the texts they have to read — and stop just there. The copies grow to be an alibi, says Umberto Eco in his book “How to Write a Thesis”: “there’s a lot someone doesn’t know anything about precisely because she photocopied a text; she has given herself in to the illusion of having read the text already.”

By amassing plenty of material, I was missing the thread of what I was looking for. Having something doesn’t mean you understand it, or can say how you will use it, or how it links to other ideas.

Caleb Wojcik suggests there are five simple steps (Fizzle – Great Ideas) to follow for ideas:

  1. Generate
  2. Document
  3. Organize
  4. Cull
  5. Execute

There’s nothing wrong with a list like this, but I think we are all different and need to decide what works for us. Compare Caleb’s list with what psychologists call SIT or Systematic Inventive Thinking. The idea behind SIT is that people who have successfully generated good ideas follow a kind of template. Drew Boyd discusses the use of idea templates here and lists quite a few ‘templaters’ including Lennon and McCartney and Agatha Christie.

The ‘templaters’ follow a pattern of thinking that helps them be more creative. These patterns:

”…regulate your thinking so that you can innovate in a systematic way on demand.”

The SIT model involves:

  • subtraction (taking away something that seems essential)
  • unification (giving something a job it’s not designed to do)
  • multiplication (copying something but giving it a novel spin)
  • division (dividing things up and re-assembling in a novel way)
  • attribute dependency (where something links in step with another thing as it changes)

As a way of coming up with, let’s say, a new verse form, these principles are fun to play with. I think the most powerful learning is that you can build a template which regulates your thinking so that you can innovate systematically. That’s what I mean by having both a process and a system.

4. Borrowing is okay

We all stand on the shoulders of people who came before us. This is because, as Indi Young writes: your brain can only forge ideas from things that exist in your mind already.

It is as Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman wrote in the Smithsonian Magazine:, citing many examples including Coleridge, Henry Ford and Picasso:

'Whether manufacturing cars, or launching modern art, creators remodel what they inherit. They absorb the world into their nervous systems and manipulate it to create possible futures".

Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman Tweet

I’m not advocating plagiarism to be clear. It is okay though to see how other poets (for example) have handled a topic you’re interested in. You may find the verse form they used instructive. Perhaps a powerful image triggers some new thought? That thought turns into a separate and distinctive image.

One way to do this is to try the SIT method referred to above. Given what other have done in the past, what happens when you subtract, unify, multiply, divide or attribute dependency in some unexpected way?

You get the point.

Where do ideas come from?

In summary, and with an eye to future development of my own thinking on this topic, here are my suggestions for generating a greater number of better ideas. I call it (tentatively) Creativity Activation .

  1. Start with a high-level concept, ideally one that is incompletely defined.
  2. Organise your thoughts by using a template (process).
  3. Have a trusted system into which you drop pieces of knowledge you discover.
  4. Consider how others have approached the topic.
  5. Run your ‘borrowed’ ideas through SIT to glean something distinctive or novel.

What about you?

If you’re interested in creativity and organising your thoughts to help generate a greater number of better ideas, I would love to hear from you. Here are some questions for you:

  • How do you organise your ideas?
  • Do you use an electronic or paper system?
  • Do you follow a template as some successful artists do?
  • Have you got useful insights you’d like to share?

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