Where Ideas Come From

Where do ideas come from? Inspiration? Craft? Dumb Luck? Evolution? Fear? All of these, I think, separately and in combination. (Ideas surely come from

Where do ideas come from? Inspiration? Craft? Dumb Luck? Evolution? Fear? All of these, I think, separately and in combination. (Ideas surely come from many more places, but I'll just deal with these five at the moment.)

Inspiration is the most fun because coming up with ideas when inspired doesn't seems like work, and you are energized to pursue them. One of the best sources of inspiration is "dumb luck" or "happy accidents" - more poetically called "serendipity." The Beatles seized on happy accidents of all varieties. (Have you ever heard the story of why "Her Majesty" starts with a crashing chord and ends without the final tonic chord?) When inspiration strikes, ideas simply pop into your head, and you're off to the races. Whole songs or articles or sound effects have come flying out of me when my thoughts were piqued by something.

Regrettably, inspiration can't be generated, but it can be cultivated. A bowl of delicious ice cream, a dawn walk down the road, a poster of Jimi Hendrix hung in the control room during the mix - people find inspiration in all sorts of ways.

Craft is a very productive area for ideas, although it entails more work than inspiration. Craft can mean starting from a stated goal ("write a bossa nova," "make the sound of infinity turning inside out for this sci-fi movie") and figuring out how to get there, hammering out the kinks endlessly before reaching fruition. This is the perspiratory 98% of genius to which Edison referred. Craft is also a good means of cultivating inspiration. Sometimes you just start to do a thing, and ideas begin to flow.

Fear, of course, is an extremely powerful motivator. Hoo-ee dogies, deadlines do get the blood moving. Lots of people get their best ideas when working under pressure. Fear is also a dark source of ideas in the many people whose creative genius is matched only by the magnitude of imbalance in their lives. Unfortunately, it's usually destructive as hell, but occasionally it can be worth it.

By evolution, I mean an idea that emerges over time. I have projects that start out as one thing but circumstances take a turn - and then I'm doing something totally unanticipated and absolutely cool. Another example of evolution is when you pick up a thread put down by someone else. No less than Igor Stravinsky said, "Good composers borrow; great composers steal." He sure was a slick thief: his music does not sound like a knockoff of other composers around him.

So how do these ideas about ideas look in action? Well, let me tell you a little about how the idea for this column came to be.

This month, I had a few ideas for my column I thought needed more development, so I wanted something else. I didn't know what that something else was until very shortly after EM editor Steve O. called to ask me if this month's "Final Mix" column was done. It's due tomorrow, I realized.

Time for me to scramble, because into my room just walked Fear. Driving home from my job at the monkey factory, my mind cast about frantically for an idea, just one good idea. Where could I find a good idea? Wait a minute...hold it...I think I'm on to something here!

From there, craft took over to develop the thought, as I pondered where ideas come from and devised the rough categorization I have described. As I filled out the idea, bits and pieces that had been kicking around for years, like the Beatles love of happy accidents, trotted out of the high grass and ran right up to me.

Ideas set the pulse racing - yours and the world's - but they are like precious spirits who will only help you if you seize them and take them on a ride. We must learn to recognize ideas when they manifest themselves, wherever they come from, so we can all go for a ride.