Think Inside the Box: How to Generate Ideas
Posted by Mark Hamilton
I think I’ve been doing a fairly good job at practicing my writing. I need to write more but I have been writing steadily. Writing is something I can do, though sometimes reluctantly. Give me a prompt, I can write on it. Heck if I need to I can BS my way through without saying anything of real substance (school gave me a lot of practice on that skill). But I can’t seem to find ideas easily. I’ve been reading Isaac Asimov again and he’s got me worried about that. The man exploded with ideas. Asimov felt that coming up with ideas was something you just had to be good at, that just happened. I think, like most things that have been chocked up to talent over the years, that generating ideas is a skill that can be learned. I’m alright at coming up with ideas. I can become better.
The principal problem, I think, with developing interesting ideas is one of boundaries. I believe G. K. Chesterton once said that artists love their boundaries. Without them it is difficult to create. Really what is an idea if not a boundary? An idea says “How about this particular sort of thing?” If a man gets the idea that a new kind of egg scrambler would be a useful invention then he knows where to proceed. His boundaries are layed out: his machine must scramble eggs effectively. Machines that launch missles, iron clothes, cut lawns, or guage water salinity are right out. Ideas often give birth to other ideas, which is another way of saying that one set of boundaries leads to an even stricter set. The egg scrambling machine would help hurried individuals everywhere quickly make a nutritious breakfast: which means it must be affordable, small, and simple to operate. The more an idea is developed the narrower its boundaries become, like a knife being sharpened to a finer and finer point.
This is why coming up with new ideas can be so difficult. If I tell myself “Quick, come up with an idea for a blog post” (something I do regularly) I find myself drawing a blank. The problem is not that I don’t have interesting things to write about. The problem is that I don’t know how to choose one. In fact, at the moment I ask myself to generate an idea I can’t seem to even locate a single interesting thought in my entire mind. The problem is that my boundaries are set far to wide. Ask me to come up with a blog topic about anything I’d like and I will almost always fail. Ask me to come up with a blog topic about dirt and dozens of ideas come to mind. Just writing that sentence has set my mind spinning with interesting things I’ve learned about farming, soil drainage, soil chemestry, fossil soils, etc. I don’t particularly want to write a whole blog post about dirt, mind you. I’d rather write about apologetics, writing, science, or faith. Which is a problem because all those things are very broad categories of thought. Telling myself to come up with a blog about apologetics isn’t much better than trying to come up with a blog about anything. It’s still far to wide of a boundary for many thoughts to come to mind. None of my blog posts about apologetics began with me thinking “I should write about apologetics.” Almost all of them began with a single argument, statement, or emotion that I encountered while just going about my daily life. Ask me to write about apologetics and I’m almost useless. Ask me to write about a snippit of a quote from an atheist I’ve never met and I can write for pages. So it is with all creative endevours. Boundaries are key.
As I write this I find myself realizing how true this principle has been in my own life. The times where I most suprised myself with my creativity have all come from starting with a definite and limited idea. My friends and I would spend hours brainstorming scenes and dialouge for our many failed movie projects; we could do this because we had a clear starting point. The hard part was deciding what kind of movie we wanted to make. Once we had the foundation (a league of superhero rejects, a comedy set on an alien occupied earth, a group of nerds who get trapped inside a roleplaying game, etc.) we had no problem coming up with plotlines, characters, and the like. To this day I often get phone calls from a friend who wants some brainstorming help for his D&D campaigns. Once he explains the situation I find that I’m capable of being extremely creative. Take me out of those boundaries and I flounder to find a single sentence.
I am now confident that the best way to generate ideas is to create boundaries. Naturally this alone helps me very little. Asking myself to come up with boundaries on the spot is about as useful as asking myself to come up with ideas on the spot. Still the knowledge is useful. The key is to not try to think outside the box. Instead try to find a box and seal yourself inside it. Then you may find that you are free to be creative.