Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

How I Get Ideas

By Steven Pressfield | Published: March 5, 2014

Herewith, ten idiosyncratic observations on the subject of generating ideas.

Idaho

Sorting potatoes in Idaho

1. Ideas seem to come by themselves, unbidden.

In certain careers that I’ve spent time in—advertising and the movie business, for example—I’ve labored under conditions where you have to produce on demand. It’s hard. It’s do-able, but it’s never really worked for me. I can’t press. It’s hard for me to grind ‘em out.

2. Ideas seem to come in off-moments.

They appear when the brain is turned off. For me that’s when I’m half asleep, pre-dawn or tossing in the middle of the night; when I’m in the shower or shaving, or driving on the freeway.

3. Ideas don’t arrive with noisy fanfare.

Even the giant ideas, like those for books that will take three years to write, appear as part of a stream of other thoughts, many of which are mundane. The blockbuster idea is just one notion out of 150, or 1050, that you have through the day. “Gee, I need to pick up my dry cleaning.” Then, “Let’s write Moby Dick.”

4. Ideas are coming in all day.

I was on a farm in Idaho once, in a gigantic underground bunker where potatoes were being sorted on an assembly line. Farm kids stood by a conveyor belt, under the lights, while thousands of potatoes tumbled past every hour. That’s what ideas feel like to me. They’re always there. The trick is training yourself to notice.

5. Good ideas have a feel to them.

The kids in Idaho were sorting the potatoes. Their job was to pick out the good ones. It was amazing to watch their hands fly. They kicked the bad ones out and guided the good ones through.

A good idea has a feel to it like a potato. You can tell a winner. A big idea feels meaty and russet. You can sense it.

6. Resistance appears .0001 of a second after a good idea.

Resistance wants you to dismiss that good idea. The voice in your head will say: “That idea? Worthless. I’ve seen that one a million times.”

Suppose you do notice the idea. Resistance will try to make you forget it. “Ooh, you’re right, that is a good one. No need to make a note though. I’m sure you’ll remember it.”

I never go anywhere, including to sleep, without a notepad or a pocket tape recorder.

7. When a good idea appears and you fasten onto it, you realize that you’ve had it before.

Great ideas in my experience don’t leap out of the water like a trout. Other, similar trout have come before them. Precursors. Adumbrations. (I’ve been waiting for years to use that word.)

You realize, once you truly get the idea, that in fact it has been preoccupying you forever but you’ve just never taken it seriously, or never imagined it emerging into its realized form. “Ah, that’s a book!” “Hey, that’s a new business!”

8. Ideas come as responses to intentions.

I can’t prove this, because the time lag is so extreme. But, as my dear friend Printer Bowler says, it’s as if you have “placed an order.” You’ve always wanted to write a film noir. Since you were a kid, your dream has been to help struggling people get on their feet. All of a sudden the idea pops into your head to write Chinatown or to invent micro-finance lending.

9. There’s no such thing as a non-creative person.

Again I can’t prove this because I can’t peek inside other people’s heads. But I will bet the ranch that you and I are having as many great ideas as Einstein or Woody Allen. We’re just not noticing them. Or, when we do, the voice of Resistance outwits us and makes us dismiss or disown them.

10. Pay attention to the potatoes.

Potato

That's the one!

Here we are, you and I, standing beside that conveyor belt in the underground bunker in Idaho. Thousands of potatoes are rolling past us every hour. Some of ‘em are stone beauties.

Snatch that spud. Grab it like the brass ring—and hang on for dear life.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

25 Responses to “How I Get Ideas”

  1. Basilis
    March 5, 2014 at 4:11 am

    Nice metaphor!

    • March 5, 2014 at 9:23 pm

      Thanks Steve, for another inspiring, thought-provoking post. Your potato metaphor demonstrates how our work is to capture what is already right there in front of us, rather than chasing after something that we perceive is “out there.”

  2. Mary Doyle
    March 5, 2014 at 4:41 am

    Love the image of potatoes on a conveyer belt, and the notion that ideas have heft as they tumble over each other vying for attention. This same process continues working as you execute the idea i.e. writing the novel in my case. My characters are always whispering in my ear, especially during my morning walks. You mentioned the pocket recorder in one of your books and I started using that feature on my phone and taking it with me. Resistance stands no better chance than my memory of these little gems getting lost before I get back home.

    And thanks for the cool new word – adumbrations…

  3. March 5, 2014 at 5:25 am

    I find I am most creative when I can open myself to the “secret” and “forbidden” places in my mind.

    Then I can bathe in the richness of these ideas while I do the hard and plodding work necessary to give them form.

  4. March 5, 2014 at 6:37 am

    Steven, I always greatly enjoy your posts, and you sometimes amaze me! Today you amazed me. You not only separated the wheat from the chaff, you baked the bread and served it tasty hot, steaming with humor.

    I fully agree with all your wrote, and I was especially drawn to how good ideas keep stalking writers. For years I wrestled with the idea to walk the 900 mile route of the Cherokee Trail of Tears. It finally grabbed me by the throat, and I sold all I owned to walk the Trail. Got very lucky with the gods and the resulting book was nominated by Random House for a Pulitzer Prize. That was my first book and I now have nine published.

    Another idea last year started to whisper to me. I finally truly listened and made a call on social media for children to write letters, make drawings and prayer flags to honor the 4,000 Cherokee that died on the Trail of Tears in 1838. These items have arrived from all across the USA and even a few countries around the world. The prayer flags will be hung on an apple tree on my land by a route used by Cherokee to travel 900 miles to Indian Territory, present day Oklahoma. Photos of the prayer flags, letters and drawings will be incorporated into a new book. Will the book be small potatoes? Who knows! When I was walking the Trail of Tears in 1989, I was to many who viewed me just a homeless man surely lost in world. The resulting book, however, has now been read by more than 500,000. Even the smallest eye on a potato, when planted with love and care, can grow to feed many.

  5. Sonja
    March 5, 2014 at 6:53 am

    I love when you intersperse your stories with your personal travel anecdotes.

    Of course, you were in an underground potato bunker! I love it! : )

    Thanks again for the constant reminder to be vigilant of Resistance trying to steal my ideas.

    Best,
    Sonja

  6. March 5, 2014 at 7:09 am

    Steve,
    I agree that we are all creative. For years, due to my tin ears, terrible perspective, ADD-like restlessness, and preference for athletics over classrooms–the lowest grades I received in all my schooling years were in ‘Art’. I shudder to think of the pain I caused my instructors over the years.

    The problem I developed from those experiences was to believe that I was not creative. To me creative=artistic, musically inclined, ability to draw or paint, write fiction, play an instrument. I held this belief well into my 30’s.

    It wasn’t until after I had ‘created’ a business (failed miserably by the way…but the cool thing is I’m STILL paying for it!!!), founded a non-profit, had made numerous innovations at work that I finally realized that I’m very creative.

    In fact, I believe the Divine Spark–which I see in kittens playing, dogs romping, or people loving, laughing–and most accurately creating is one of the central points to our existence. That will to create is Divinity, begging for expression.

    I have an idea that sticks with me like a scratched LP. My mind keeps going back to it. It is a tasty looking potato, and will see the light of day eventually.

    I had an opportunity to talk about it on a TEDx, but due to greed and small-mindedness I chose to speak about something else. I didn’t want to ’spread this idea’ without compensation. A year later, it occurred to me that maybe my definition of ‘currency’ needed to change. Is currency literally coin, or could it be access to others with ideas? Can currency simply be the sense of joy a creator feels to see his/her ‘idea’ alive? Can currency be a reputation? An introduction?

    I love this page. I enjoy reading the posts as much as the main article. This page is currency.
    bsn

  7. March 5, 2014 at 7:36 am

    Indeed, I can identify. How many ideas/metaphors can come from one spud? Your The War of Art continues to mash, shred, smash and dash this 72yo spud of a mind. It is one of the top 10 books I ask emerging leaders I mentor to read as we begin the journey to help them find their place on the planet. Thank you. Deep thanks!

  8. elizabeth
    March 5, 2014 at 7:49 am

    Adumbrations — Great word. Now I’ll have to add it to my list of words to use. Hmmmm.

  9. March 5, 2014 at 8:50 am

    Had that thought too, who else who would have been in a potato bunker? Thanks for sharing, Steve. And the reminder about always carrying a notebook or recorder – a good way to intercept the inevitable response from resistance. Love the visuals inspired by the word “adumbrations”…

  10. Marcy McKay
    March 5, 2014 at 9:20 am

    What I needed to hear most today is, “Resistance appears .0001 of a second after a good idea.” That’s right where I am. Muchas gracias, Steven!

  11. March 5, 2014 at 11:06 am

    Love it. Although we can’t ‘prove’ it we are all receiving ideas and creative, I’ll second that. Listening and putting them down regardless of what the mind chirps afterwards is key. Then of course sticking til the end is always helpful.

    So glad to read your blog Steven.

  12. March 5, 2014 at 11:11 am

    “Pay attention to the potatoes.” Love it.

  13. March 5, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    I was midstream in reading your book “The Authentic Swing” when I commented on it on another stream. I did not know that you were not happy with the end results of the “movie”, “The Legend of Bagger Vance”. Here is what I think about that…

    I watched it 3-4 times in a row, and as I responded before, tears rolled at specific times. I have read your books, “The War of Art”, “Turning Pro”, “The Warrior Ethos”, “Do the Work” and those writings have penetrated my heart and work ethic. As I watched the movie, “The Legend of Bagger Vance”, all the emotions I felt in reading said books, melted into one message.. to believe in myself, and to DO THE WORK. I felt moved and inspired as the whole philosophy that I had absorbed fell into place. It might not have expressed the whole story of how we get from here to there, but it spoke to my heart and I embraced the words in your book, even more than before. I watched the movie with my husband and found myself explaining my heart in all of this. Pause.. you see, I said to my husband, what this defines it this.. or that. :)

    Yes, imagination is elusive, comes in waves within a whisper. We learn to notice those messages, or not.

    Thank you for all you have given to me.

  14. March 5, 2014 at 2:08 pm

    I appreciate how it is about NOTICING what is already there for us to discover. So much everyday offers up inspiration. This is how my spiritual and writing path come together: EVERYTHING is material to work with. (Even a few rotten potatoes can be worked with).

  15. March 5, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    Great advice Steven!

  16. March 5, 2014 at 3:26 pm

    I had a reassuring dream about the creative project I’m immersed in now. I woke up to the sound of the telephone ringing.

    It was…a calling.

  17. John Thomas
    March 5, 2014 at 10:10 pm

    Nicely written. I felt like you verbalized my experience.

    I’m driving to work today, and this great bass riff goes through my head, and, after Resistance tries to discard it, I realize, “Hey, I like that! It kinda reminds me of something Janek Gwizdala would play.” And I hum it on the way into the office… and don’t get it on “tape.” Crap, it got me again. But I’ll catch it next time! There’s a smartphone app to help me with that… :-)

  18. March 6, 2014 at 10:57 am

    Great post! And “adumbration” was worth the price of admission! Yeah, I know it was free, but still….

  19. Beth
    March 6, 2014 at 10:58 am

    You are my Muse and A**-kicking motivator. I love your writing. This article is excellent, as yours (and Shawn’s) always are.

    [BUT...Could we not have had a different example than Woody Allen? As a friend to many abuse survivors, his name tastes like catfish grown in toxic waste ponds. I get that he's creative, but no. Just no.]

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sarakay-smullens/woody-allens-2014-win-a-s_b_4894332.html

    • March 7, 2014 at 5:57 am

      Beth, I agree. This last denial of his after his step-daughter’s story really did it for me. Her story absolutely rings true. As much as I love his movies, I will never watch one again, and just hearing his name makes me ill.

  20. March 26, 2014 at 9:43 am

    Great post! Makes me think of Robert Pirsig’s book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” If you haven’t read it, you MUST read it. YOU, Steven, will LIKE it, I promise. It discusses all this stuff–resistance, ideas, creativity, quality, work, and much, much more, in fascinating, mind-boggling ways. The first half can be slow going, but if you’ll stay with it, you’ll be richly rewarded–as is true with many things in life.

    • March 26, 2014 at 9:46 am

      Another book with some very useful techniques for understanding and dealing with resistance is “Block: Getting Out of Your Own Way,” by Lipson and Perkins.

  21. March 26, 2014 at 9:51 am

    By the way, having grown up in Ashton, Idaho, the seed-potato capital of the world, I’m here to tell you that the term is not “potato bunker.” *snort*

    The term is “spud cellar.”