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“Where do you get your ideas?”

I don’t think any author has ever not been asked that question at one time or another. (Neil Gaiman has some very creative and way-too-clever answers, by the way.) But here’s the thing: it’s the wrong question. Ideas aren’t what create characters, stories, words that can move readers to joy or anger or tears. You don’t tuck yourself into bed at night looking forward to reading some ideas before you go to sleep.

Ideas are, as a matter of fact, vastly overrated.

Beginning writers seem to guard theirs anxiously, plastering copyright notices all over unfinished opera and asking editors to sign nondisclosure agreements lest their ideas be somehow stolen. And people in general are usually baffled and sometimes irate when an idea they had finds its way into the public via a movie or an advertising slogan or a time-saving gadget, wondering how someone else could have possibly had that thought.

Well, they can, and they do. Ideas are a dime a dozen (and I may even be overestimating their worth).

I don’t want to discount the value of a good idea; I just want to point out the fallacy that it must somehow be unique to one mind. Events, history, other people, politics, weather, all these and more are constantly shaping the way we interact with the world, the way our brains make sense of it, and what parts of it we choose to label as important. It’s not just natural, therefore, that given similar sets of experiences, different people at around the same time might produce similar ideas; what is extraordinary is when that doesn’t happen.

Ideas are everywhere, plucked from our dreams, half-remembered from an old book, discovered when walking on the beach, screaming at us from headlines. What matters isn’t that the idea came to us; what matters is what we do with it. That, and not the random and sometimes fleeting acquisition of a thought, is what creativity is about.

Here’s an analogy. I am not a musician, but from time to time a tune presents itself to me seemingly out of nowhere and I hum it. It feels new, different, and I take pleasure in indulging a thought about my own heretofore hidden talents. Does that make me a composer? Not even a little bit.

Or imagine two painters. They both visualize a spectacular sunset. One goes to a café to ponder the idea of the sunset, and the other goes into the studio and paints the sunset. Which one is the artist?

And that’s the other fallacy about ideas. It is the act of creation that creates, not its origin story. Placing the emphasis primarily on the idea fails to distinguish between the relatively easy process of being creative in the abstract and the infinitely more difficult process of innovating in the concrete. Creativity isn’t about having great, original thoughts; it’s about turning those original thoughts into something real. A novel. A symphony. A painting. A dance.

Ideation and innovation aren’t synonymous — it’s a matter of idea-generation versus idea-implementation. And confusing the two leads to laziness. Anyone can sit in the sun and dream of becoming a great artist, but until they get up and do the work — learn the craft, practice the sequences, hone the art — that’s all it’s going to be: a dream.

The act of creation is just that: an act. It is, as many of us like to say, putting the seat of one’s pants in the seat of the chair and keeping it there. Sweating the work. Finding the right words, the images. Pondering the plot or the rhythm or the expression. Getting frustrated, swearing, feeling despair of ever creating anything beautiful, and still staying there through the hard labor and the frustration and the despair. Staying there until something, that elusive “it,” has come into being, something where there was nothing before.

That is creation.

So next time you hear an author speak and wonder where they got their ideas, keep that question to yourself, because it simply doesn’t matter. Ask instead the questions that might help you become more creative. How do they do the work? What is their discipline? How do they handle failure and frustration? What helps them keep going?

That’s how they create. And perhaps it’s how you can, too.

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