Idea Safari: Stalking the Wild, Untamed Spark of Inspiration

by Brian on April 27, 2017

in Behind the Scenes, Commentary, Life & Stuff

It’s the one question every writer has heard, probably more times than we can count: “Where do you get your ideas?”

Treasure — sometimes in the places you least expect it.

Treasure — sometimes in the places you least expect it.

I don’t know why it seems so stereotypically targeted to writers. I can’t think of anyone else who’s supposed to answer this with any regularity. So I’m genuinely curious: Do session guitarists get asked this? Research chemists? Or choreographers? A couple months ago I read Twyla Tharp’s quasi-memoir, The Creative Habit, and she left no doubts as to her process, but didn’t mention anyone inquiring about it as if it were some shrouded mystery.

Theory: The mystery comes from writing’s spartan, sedentary nature, in which we work with nothing that anyone else can see. We just type. That’s it. Twyla Tharp goes into her studio and starts moving, and maybe magic happens. It’s probably fascinating and beautiful to observe. But me and my kind? We just sit and type. There is no writer’s equivalent of guitar face. We don’t headbang while channeling stuff through our fingers. There is no body language except slumping. We just sit here and fucking type, with random catatonic states in which not even that happens.

“This is how I look when I work,” said no writer, ever.

“This is how I look when I work,” said no writer, ever.

Guaranteed, if you were in this room with me right now and not allowed to play with the cats, you could only watch me ignoring you, you would be ready to kill one or both of us within five minutes.

It isn’t that we work with nothing. It’s that the raw material has no tangibility on the outside. Still, it’s there, and it has to come from somewhere, either passively … or not so passively, recalling the advice of Jack London:

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.

Of Creativity And Sticky Shopping Carts

The most succinct definition of creativity I’ve encountered is this: It’s making connections between two or more previously unrelated things.

Which is what I was getting at in the lead-in to the endnotes of my 2002 collection, Lies & Ugliness, with this analogy:

“[W]riters are actually more like those poor aromatic unfortunates who clatter along city sidewalks pushing shopping carts filled with a puzzling array of seemingly unrelated rubbish. And every now and again we stop and stoop with a satisfied grunt — sometimes an unnerving squeal of delight — and toss something else in the cart. Eventually we peer into the cart and notice how a few of these salvaged treasures can start fitting together.”

Things get sticky in the cart. Pull one piece out, and something else comes with it.

I still like that. It still feels apt. But there’s a certain passivity to the paradigm: the creator as hapless receiver, tripping over things and only noticing their value months or years or half a lifetime later.

There’s nothing wrong with receiving ideas that drift by like dandelion fluff. It’s inevitable, a buildup that accrues through everyday living. Something happens to you or to someone you know or you never entirely got over this event from childhood or you hate your rageaholic boss but can’t wait for karma to give him what he deserves or you read some article and it sets off a chain reaction, or any of a jillion other stimuli, and then through alchemical processes in your wetware you turn that real-life lead into storytelling gold.

Passivity will always be a vital part of generating ideas, even the biggest part. Still, in recent years, I’ve supplemented that with an additional, more active approach:

The creator as hunter.

Idea Safari In Practice

I had to call it something, and Idea Safari is what stuck. I do it periodically — as recently as three weeks ago — most often when I have a queue of projects and commitments and deadlines, and nothing in the cart seems quite right. Or maybe I already have ideas, but they’re hazy and need company to bring them into focus.

The method is simple. I set aside a good chunk of a day, and go somewhere miles away, breaking from my ordinary surroundings. Then I start wandering, with — and this is crucial — the specific intention of finding things that will be relevant to the needs of my current projects. Sights, sounds, experiences … whatever I can drag home that I can fashion into something nutritious and/or useful.

Tools of the hunt? Also simple. Something for taking notes, and something for shooting pictures. These are my clubs.

On the surface, it looks the same as the shopping cart model, with seemingly aimless roaming involved. But it’s the mindful intention that makes all the difference. Being out there for a defined purpose.

The intention is what recalibrates the filters.

Idea Safari In Theory

Ever since neuroscience started to drift into pop culture, success lit has latched onto the reticular activating system, the part of the brain that, among other duties, determines what we notice in daily life. We can’t take in everything — there’s too much detail to process — so on a subconscious level we screen out what isn’t particularly relevant and let in what is. The new car example gets tossed around a lot: You’re considering buying a particular model of car, and suddenly you start seeing it everywhere. They were there before, but now they’re relevant.

Intention determines relevance. Which is why this passage from Ana Forrest’s sorta scary yoga memoir, Fierce Medicine, resonated so loudly when I read it that I had to copy and save it:

“The path you’ll need to walk to achieve your goals is a long one. It’s easy to lose focus. That’s why it’s so important to set your intent every day. Renew your commitment to live life authentically daily. Most of us wake up, toss some coffee down our throats, and rush headlong into our day. Instead, if you pause to begin your day with a strong intent about what you plan to discover or why you’ll take a certain action, you’ll get better results. You can go out into the wilderness and wander, or you can go out and start tracking.”

Different Context, Same Principle

In that wilderness, out tracking, I’m not passing through an environment while going from Point A to Point B. I’m immersed within it. There is no Point B. It’s all Point A. I’ve opened the filters as wide as I can and trust the process, that I’ll walk down the right street or alley, or take the right trail, and things will present themselves, and some will have weight and meaning.

I might spot things I’ve never seen before, some of which will never be there to be seen again, because of their transitory nature.

I might spot something I’ve seen a hundred times before, but now I’m looking at it with fresh eyes, in a new context. Because with this 101st time, I’m seeing how it connects to something else. It has possibilities I never noticed before, because now it fills a fresh gap and meets a need.

I might find people to transmute for the page. Or perfect locales where events are going to unfold. A simple tableau that draws my eye might suggest an entire narrative chain of events. I might find details that breathe life and truth into something that’s as yet only half-formed.


Message on a dumpster. There’s a story here. Maybe someday I’ll even figure out what it is.

And I might find things that have no use at all today, but stick anyway, because there’s something there, and they replenish the well for tomorrow.

I can honestly say it’s never failed. A few of the finds and what they’ve led to:

  • The incongruous sight of a batch of helium balloons caught in branches in front of twin cathedral bell towers triggered an image of a suicidal jumper, and the story “If I Should Wake Before I Die,” for an anthology called Outsiders, and a subsequent year’s-best reprint.
  • An interesting building I couldn’t see into left me wondering what went on inside, and grafted to an existing, if vague, idea of a mother raising her son with the express intent of making him a monster. The outgrowth was Whom the Gods Would Destroy, which became a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and won its publisher’s readers’ choice award for best novella of 2013.
  • During my latest outing three weeks ago, a chunk of driftwood connected to my discovery of shipworms last October, at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, and within days a commissioned piece was off and running. Plus a building I’d seen countless times before volunteered for service in something involving a return to my very first collection, The Convulsion Factory.
Because someone never wanted anyone to see inside here, Whom the Gods Would Destroy had to happen.

Because someone never wanted anyone to see inside here, Whom the Gods Would Destroy had to happen.

None of these finds smacked me in the face while I was occupied doing something else. I may never have seen them if I hadn’t been actively looking for them, not even knowing what I was looking for, just trusting that I would recognize it when I saw it.

So go forth. Seek. Find. Club something.

You never know what quarry you might bring home for the simple cost of looking.

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