My writer friend Denton Loving recently mentioned that he is composing a craft essay about the source of ideas. He sent out a call for ideas about ideas: Do you even know where your ideas come from? It got me thinking on the C train; I started scratching down some thoughts for him, but I wound up writing my own essay about ideas. (So, of course, emails from smart friends should necessarily be on the list of places from which ideas surface.)
Biking. Listening to classical music performed live, watching the cellists and flautists and violinists close their eyes and twitch and sweat. Listening to hip-hop: in the car, biking, walking paths urban and rural. The beach: watching the water. Flying, every single flight. Sex—sometimes I’ll have such a good idea I’ll almost want to pause for a moment to jot it down (almost). Long talks, especially with other writers. Fireplaces: watching the burn. Long drives (dictation). Museums and galleries and dance performances. Epic walks. New cities; architecture. Anything new. Reading, of course. Yoga. Meditation. Baths short and long, with or without bubbles or Epsom salt or essential oil.
But these are all experiences. Truth is, ideas just arrive. I feel as though the French must have a word for this—that moment we’ve all had, that mysterious alchemy of timing and memory, circumstance and scent and the right kind of light, the moon out or rain or another day of medium sun and the phone rings or doesn’t ring and perhaps we’ve showered already or maybe we’re just getting started with a pot of tea; no matter the context, these moments of grace, these muse-moments just come. They come precious and infrequent, but the important thing is that they do roll in from time to time.
These moments appear with more regularity, I find, if I am putting seemingly unrelated work in to further their probability of existence. This includes more obvious self-care–type things such as yoga and meditation, but it also includes unlikely or inexact practices including but not limited to: late nights with old friends; no writing for two weeks because—life; long Sundays with lovers; binge-listening to records; answering the phone when it would be easier to hit “ignore”; eating soft-poached eggs in morning light with a little salt; reading a book instead of writing; going to the movies instead of writing; going to a friend’s birthday party instead of writing. Which is to say: leisure. Going slowly. The counterintuitive idea of slow and steady winning the race.
This is not, of course, to say we shouldn’t write regularly or to provide excuse to goof around or play hooky or blow it off altogether (though I maintain that this is important sometimes, at least for me—my muse doesn’t like stringency!), but it is to say that writing is not so rarified or, god forbid, formulaic. A writer and teacher whom I admire and respect beyond belief once told me that she wrote just one hour each day for a period of time. She found that she couldn’t get herself to adhere to the rigor of writing every day; but when she broke it down to one hour, she not only stuck to it but also accomplished more in that one hour than she had previously in longer stretches, simply by virtue of the fact that she knew she only had that one hour, and had to make hay, etc. At the end of her hour, she would stop. Another trick I learned from yet another fabulous writer and teacher is to set a writing window and only write for that quantum of time: no more, no less. This seemed insane to me. “But what if you’re on a roll at the end of your window?” I asked. “All the better,” he told me. “Then you’ll be excited to write again the next day.” At first when I tried this suggestion it felt so counterintuitive that I almost couldn’t adhere to it, but he was right.
I digress. This is an essay about ideas, and the source thereof, and not about what to do with such ideas once they arise—sometimes first like a mirage, blurry and almost hallucinogenic, slowly developing over time; and sometimes so clear and in focus from the start that it is actually startling, a somatic experience of heart-skip or breath-gasp, the pulling over to the side of the road to capture the idea, fragile and prenatal, before it flits back from whence it came without further comment, never to return again.
This brings me to another aside: Where do ideas go when they ring in and we don’t write them down? This happens routinely, the fantastic idea for a character or a scene or a whole story in the shower or on a bicycle or ferris wheel or date or in a swimming pool or on a long walk or literally up a tree with no paper in sight. While I’ve dreamed up elaborate and hilarious mnemonic devices to remember such ideas, they often slip through the lattice of my brain despite my best efforts and have fully departed by the time a notebook or napkin or the back of a receipt is at hand. While this is an incredibly frustrating phenomenon, I’ve come to a conclusion: The best ideas, the ones I’m really supposed to roll with, double back or stay. If it’s important, it will come back. As to the rest, the ephemeral, the ones that get away—negligible. Or at least that’s what I like to believe.
And so, dear readers: How do you think of ideas? Where do you think they come from? I should conclude by saying that collaboration has always been a vital source of idea-making for me, and that there is a special type of magic that happens when we bounce ideas off each other, some kind of power of multiplication that spreads and squares and cubes ideas. Ideas need and breed on other ideas; and for ideas, for certain, we need each other.
Bibi Deitz lives and writes in Brooklyn. Recent work has appeared in Bookforum, The Rumpus, Berfrois, Queen’s Mob’s Teahouse and BOMB, and is forthcoming from Marie Claire.