It seems by far the most frequent question writers, and probably other creative minds, are asked is ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ Writers have responded with myriad answers. More religious writers might ascribe their creativity to God or a divine influence. I’ve felt this myself, a feeling of distance from my creative ideas, as though they do not come from me, but rather already existed and I was simply fortunate enough to have discovered them. Many secular writers and creatives have personified this force as their ‘muse’ and I like to use this metaphor at times, but it doesn’t explain where ideas come from. Stephen King has famously described the process of creativity as uncovering a fossil which had already been buried in the ground, positioning the writer as an archaeologist. He only uncovers the idea; he does not create it. I like this metaphor, but, again, I think there’s a better explanation.
When people ask this question, they often associate it with dreams. I’ve been asked more than once if I get my creative ideas from dreams, and indeed several significant novels derive from their author’s dreams, but for me, dreams in themselves are only a tiny influence on my creative work. I’ve had a few good ideas from dreams, but they were very simple or else too absurd to hold a prolonged narrative. It’s interesting that people mention dreams when asking about one’s creative source, because it suggests to me that they kind of already know the answer that I’m about to give. After all, they come from the same place: the unconscious.
I’m not going to spend much time defining the unconscious, because there’s plenty of material out there, and most people have a basic understanding already. According to Wikipedia, the unconscious ‘consists of the processes in the mind which occur automatically and are not available to introspection, and include thought processes, memories, interests, and motivations.’ Essentially, it’s a part of our brain that is not readily available to our conscious mind and comprises all of our experiences, fears, insecurities, desires, and memories. It’s my belief that once our conscious mind switches off when we sleep, we drift around our unconscious with little to no direction. So dreams can hold relevance to memories or pertinent fears, but they might also be completely random events and possibilities that your mind is free to explore without the confines of a conscious mind. To say that creativity comes from the unconscious is a little redundant, however, because by that logic, so does all of our thoughts. There is something in our minds it seems, which filters the important thoughts and memories, fears and desires into the conscious and unconscious. Freud famously calls this the ego, but for simplicity let’s call it a window. It’s this window, I believe, that forms the basis of creative influence. The window is ultimately shaped by the present conscious mind, i.e. your unconscious mind is viewed through a window of whatever you feel or experience at the present moment. I think the stronger the relationship between the conscious and unconscious mind, the more creative a person is: the more potent their thoughts and ideas are. But of course we all have myriad different thoughts, feelings, and stimuli that have shaped our unconsciouses, so our senses of creativity are subjective. Having said this, I think there are certain aspects that are universal, for instance virtually everyone has a fear of death and of isolation, a desire to be appreciated and loved. This is why I love horror so much, because it gives me the ability to explore the universal elements of our unconscious, particularly the things that motivate us.
But our unconscious minds aren’t constant streams of fear and instinct. I think for the most part, they consist of loosely connected thoughts, memories, and ideas that have little emotional resonance. In short, there’s a lot of random shit floating around our minds, and naturally our egos decide this is unimportant, and there’s no reason for us to remember or access these thoughts. But it’s all still there, and dreams and drugs and art allow us to explore it. I certainly think creativity derives from one’s relationship with their unconscious mind, whichever way they decide to access it. And I’m not implying all creativity comes from drug use. Quite contrarily: some of the best creative minds were completely abstinent, yet I think inversely, people with a greater natural access to their unconscious are more attracted to other ways of exploring it. I think most writers, and painters, and musicians for that matter, simply achieve this level of creativity through art itself. I don’t sit and think about exactly what I’m going to write; I just start typing shit, and eventually scrub it away to find small chunks of creative gold beneath.
I think we have a little ability to direct our capacity for creativity, but that control is very limited. Consider the unconscious, if you will, as a lake, and the conscious mind as a sailboat. We can row further out and cast our line in a different place, which might yield slightly different results, but ultimately we can only fish in that lake, and we can only fish. We can’t for instance cast our line and draw in a succulent pig. We can only really draw on our own experience – our own unconscious – hence the quote ‘write about what you know’. I would definitely emphasise it in this context. Not simply ‘Oh, you’re a huge football fan? Write a story about football.’ I would ignore the superficial meaning of the quote, though it’s certainly easier to write about familiar superficialities, but I would urge people to write about the emotions and experiences that really call to them, because that is your muse. People that try and create art outside of their own pool of experiences often end up creating rather uninspired art. I’m not saying don’t educate yourself about alien experiences, or don’t indulge in them, but don’t make that your core influence. You see this all the time in pop music for instance, people singing about the same shit to reflect what’s relevant or saleable, and not what the artist really feels. This results in homogenous, uninspired drivel that questions the definition of Art. I’m not saying don’t write or sing about common ideas – Yes, we’ve all felt love and heartbreak, but there are only so many times I can hear this on the radio before I change station – I’m saying write about whatever calls to you. Follow your fucking (he)art.
So I suppose after that tangential rant, I’ll leave you there. That’s where I think creativity comes from, and that’s why I think we should all trust our ‘muses’ if so inclined. Because life’s way too short not to explore the deep crevices of our minds. You never know what you might find.