Sunday, 31 July 2011

Two Books About Ideas

Or: “I’ve got a great idea for a novel. No, wait. Seriously, I have.”

There’s a nice story about a fanboy who approaches a games designer at a conference. “I’ve got a great idea for a game!” he enthuses, hoping to make his fortune. The games designer looks at him soberly. “And I’ve got a great idea for a painting” he replies.

I like this tale, whether true or apocryphal, because it gets to the heart of an interesting issue about creativity. As a society, we love the idea of the Eureka moment; the displacement of water in a bath, a falling apple – the ‘suddenly-it-came-to-me-in-a-blinding-flash-of-realisation’ story that we tell and re-tell; the kind of story that paints creativity as an elusive product of genius, accessed only by a chosen few. The fanboy at the conference thinks he’s had one of these rare epiphanies. The games designer, however, knows better. We can all have ideas, says his sarcastic answer, particularly outside our field of expertise. It’s what we do with them that counts – so get to the back of the queue.

Scott Belsky’s organisation 'The 99percent' (you can follow them on Twitter here) focuses its interest and energy not on the ‘1% inspiration’ element of the famous equation, but on the ‘99% perspiration’ bit. The idea is easy; it’s the commitment to completion that matters. “That’s why,” Belsky says in a presentation to an eager crowd of creative types, “there are more unfinished novels in the world than there are novels.” In his book 'Making Ideas Happen', Belsky argues that the feelings of possibility we experience at the point of creation are such powerful and magnetic ones that we yearn to return to them. We would rather, he says, begin creating anew than push our previous idea through to completion. The ‘project plateau’ he says, is littered with the half complete skeletons of millions of unrealised ideas.

Stephen Johnson’s contribution to this field is 'Where Good Ideas Come From'. You can watch an animated lecture summarising his ideas here. His approach is environmental; spaces and interactions are at the root of all good ideas. They can’t develop in isolation, argues Johnson. He is particularly persuasive in his argument that good ideas need a period of incubation – they often take years to develop – and the point of birth tends to be a ‘collision’ with another idea, usually someone else’s.

I was once chairing a session with an Irish poet and some students. He was reading and discussing his stuff; they were keen writers asking for advice. I remember him talking towards the end of the session about an idea he was working on. “I’m going to use this line somewhere” he told us all, flicking through his notebook. “It’s ‘the lie of the land’.” He said it again a few times and we all listened in as he talked about how he felt that phrase had great possibilities. But it wasn’t ready to be used yet. I thought about him again as I read Johnson’s book; he was waiting for it to collide with another line, I suppose.

So – I’ve got this great idea for a novel.

And a film. And the soundtrack to the film. And a line of really cool merchandise. And an acceptance speech at the Booker.

Yeah, right. Get to the back of the queue, Fletcher. The work’s only just beginning.


  1. Fascinating post. The Johnson book sounds interesting. A lot of what you say resonates with me. The ideas are the easy part.

  2. Anne -

    It's certainly worth a read. The 'animated lecture' is one of a whole series, by the way - they're excellent.

    Thanks for the comment!

    (Hope the house-hunting's going well!)