“My idea of hell is a blank sheet of paper. Or a blank screen.”
I just read Neil Gaiman’s essay, “Where do you get your ideas?” and this quote stuck. Nothing is more terrible than a blindingly white blank screen with a cursor incessantly blinking. It’s intimidating, aggravating, and at times, cause for me to hide from my computer. Every writer has been on the receiving end of a blank page’s unwavering stare. We yearn for ideas to begin cultivating words on a naked page.
Gaiman’s essay got me thinking: where do my own ideas come from? There is no doubt I make them up out of my head, as he puts it. But what ignites them? Of course my ideas spur from life experiences and from hours of reading, but I’m talking about that exact moment when an idea pops like a kernel of corn.
I started thinking about my last few picture book ideas and others from years ago. After some deep thought, I think I’ve found the defining similarity between each “aha!” moment: my mind was 100% free to wander wherever it pleased.
For me, ideas surface when I’m concentrating on nothing in particular. When I’m not working out a solution to a project at work or making plans at home. When I’m not going over everything I need to do next week or responding to emails. Nope, my ideas emerge when I can push all obligatory thinking to the side and truly think freely.
When does this happen? Most often when I walk my dog or when I’m on the cusp of sleep. Taking Dixie on her daily 2-mile stroll is my decompression time. I forget about work and stress and I think about…nothing.
That brief period between consciousness and sleep is also gold for me. My brain stretches, yawns, and forgets about the day and its worries. I’ve thought of a number of ideas in this state, and they inevitably propel me to being eyes-wide-open awake. But I never complain when I’m up late scribbling ideas.
I wish I could say this happened every day. Oh how many ideas I would have! Though I try to clear my headspace when I’m walking or about to sleep, I’m often unsuccessful. I continue thinking about work or weekend plans or current events. And those thoughts hog space and leave no room for idea time.
In college I took a digital poetry course. To help students get in the “write” state, the professor started each class by instructing us to close our eyes and focus on relaxing every part of our bodies. Relax your eyebrows, let your mouth droop, think of your arms as cooked spaghetti, etc. I essentially turned to mush in my chair, but this exercise cleared my mind because I was hyperfocused on relaxing. And when I was completely relaxed, ideas abound. Time to start doing this again!
I wish I could pull ideas from my night dreams or force them at the snap of my fingers, but unfortunately it’s not that easy. And an idea is only the beginning. It means nothing if you don’t act on it and write.
The blank screen is a giant pest from hell. I squash it with no-strings-attached daydreaming. Stomp, squish, twirl!