Fresh ideas in our writing — what more precious a gift can come to us? And yet, most of us know that a new way of looking at things doesn’t spring from our heads the way Athene sprang from the head of her father Zeus, fully formed and armored. While we have all surely enjoyed a rare “Eureka!” moment, now and then, even these are the products of a lot of underground activity buzzing away in our brains.
Is there a path to producing ideas that we can follow with confidence? According to a classic on creative thinking, A Technique for Producing Ideas, the answer is yes. Penned by by James Webb Young, a professor of business history, this pithy handbook lays out a five-step strategy for generating fresh insights. His overarching premise is deceptively simple: 1) “an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements”; and 2) “the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.” With this in mind, here’s Young’s 5-step method in a nutshell:
1) Gather your raw materials: During this stage, you cast a wide net, gathering information both specifically on the subject you want to explore and generally, adding to your store of enriching but seemingly random general knowledge.
2) Let your mind range across the information: At this stage, you turn the information you’ve gathered this way and that, “chewing” on it, absorbing and pondering it.
3) Let the information “incubate:” During this stage, you deliberately turn away from consciously mulling over your material, diverting yourself with other creative pursuits like listening to music or attending art exhibits, pursuing a hobby you enjoy or just pottering around. In short, you “let something beside the conscious mind do the work of synthesis.”
4) The “Eureka! I have it! stage: This is the fruit of your labors, the point where “the actual birth of the idea takes place,” and you begin to see something new and exciting.
5) Developing the idea: During this final stage, you play with the idea and shape it, adapting it to meet your needs.
I love the straightforward simplicity of this approach. And in my experience, this is the way new ideas come to me: After studying and thinking about something to the point where I sometimes feel overwhelmed and even confused, I simply let it go, turning away from it and relaxing my mind, and suddenly, fragments float together and a fresh insight crops up. It seems to hit me out of the blue, but it’s actually the fruit of a germinating process taking place “underground.”
How about you? Does this path to ideas seem like a fruitful one for you? Write on!