I’m often asked, “Where do you get your ideas from?”
I often respond by saying, “I don’t know,” or, if they’re a person who I know pretty well and I know they can handle a dose of sarcasm, I say, “My brain.”
Mostly, I give these answers because I know the person isn’t actually looking for the truth. Mostly they want some awesome bullshit about how everything came to me in a flash, a sudden inspiration, the shaking wind of poetry that descended upon me and caused my trembling fingers to hammer out a story.
Sorry, Jack. That don’t happen.
If you’re looking for the “Big Idea,” then keep on looking. I don’t have any of those.
What I have, are lot of little ideas. Tiny inspirations.
Things that make me think.
If the finished product is a glass of delicious beer, one of my ideas is a single seed of barley, waiting to germinate: There’s a lot of work and patience that goes on between the seed and the beverage.
Here’s one little seed: A picture that randomly came into my brain of a lone soldier at a campfire with his dog, possessing the only remaining copy of the American Constitution, determined to rebuild his shattered country.
Now, what do you think that image eventually germinated into?
Another little seed came from an old Vietnamese farmer’s poem that I read in the margins of a book on the Vietnam War. The last lines of that poem were what struck me:
Next year, if the land is extravagant,
I shall pay the taxes for you.
In plenty or in want, there will still be you
always the two of us.
Isn’t that better than prospering
Remind you of anything that you’ve read recently?
My point is, at no point did the entirety of an idea come to me and sweep me off my feet in a fit of inspiration. In fact, most of the time, I don’t even know what the story is about until I’m halfway through writing it.
But it all starts with a little seed. And yes, there is a lot of work that goes between the seed in the ground, and the beer in your hand–harvesting, malting, kilning, brewing–but there’s two big sections in all that work that I think everyone ignores: the time that it takes to grow that seed into a plant; and the time that it takes to ferment the brew into beer.
In both those instances, your only job is to wait.
We are very bad at waiting.
We are very bad at patience.
We are very bad at not being constantly entertained.
But the mind needs patience, just like that seed needs soil and water to germinate.
How often do you allow yourself to sit in the quiet and just think? How often are you truly free of distraction, and you allow your mind to wander and go where it wants to go? Because that’s when the small seeds of inspiration turn into big ideas. That’s when the immature brew turns into the matured beverage–only when you allow them time and the necessary environment to grow.
Whether you’re writing, or making videos, or blogging, or just trying to come up with a solution to a problem at work, if you really want to germinate some inspiration, put down your phone.
Turn off your television.
Your family will survive an hour without your direct attention.
Take your mind out of the hamster wheel, and let it go where it wants.
You might be surprised where it leads you.