Musings on Finding Creative Ideas

by Rupour
originally published: 2024-02-25

As I'm wrapping up production on my newest game Hey! Here are some letters, I've been thinking a lot about what my next game will be, and figured I would finally start that blog I've been telling myself I'm going to make for years now.

This is an exciting time! There are so many choices! However, if you aren't well prepared, a blank canvas can quickly turn into an endless void that eats all of your ideas. Then you're stuck, staring at nothing, and cursing the Muses for not blessing you. But don't be mean to the muses; they don't respond well to that.

I'm currently a person with too many ideas, where the choice of which one to pursue next is the biggest problem. But this has not always been the case; there have been many times where it feels impossible to find an idea. This article aims to explore both how to combat having too many and not enough ideas, but since you can't choose your next project without first having an idea, let's start there.

Where Do Creative Ideas Come From?

No one really knows, and in fact everyone has not known for quite a long time. The ancient Greeks had a concept of Muses, generally considered as 9 goddesses who were the source of all creative ideas and would grant them to the lucky few. You would never know exactly when a Muse would grant you an idea, but keeping reverence to the creative process with dedicated effort seemed to make the Muses look favorably upon you.

Nowadays, the word 'muse' usually refers to a real person that is the inspiration for creation, often a romantic partner or respected figure in society. And this makes sense, real people are awesome, and using your appreciation for other people can be a wonderful source of inspiration. However, this modern version of the word doesn't capture the same serendipitous feeling of having an idea pop into your head that was the cornerstone of the Greek mythology Muses.

Because humans don't really believe in the goddesses anymore, there have been a few other attempts at trying to figure out where ideas come from. Most of them come down to subconscious thought. My two favorites are "The Compost Heap" from Neil Gaiman and "Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind" from Guy Claxton.

The Compost Heap

This is an idea that I first learned from Neil Gaiman, writer of wonderful series such as The Sandman Comics, Coraline, Good Omens, and American Gods. In Gaiman's Master Class The Art of Storytelling (which was great by the way, probably worth the price on its own!), there was a video about sources of inspiration. Of course, he also started it with how no one really knows where ideas come from. However, his main theory is as follows: every experience you have in life finds a place in your brain, and all of those experiences decay and meld into a sort of compost heap. Then, when the seed of an idea gets planted during your day to day life, it will grow in the rich soil of the compost heap, and eventually a beautiful creative idea blooms. It's such a pleasant way to describe creativity, and I love it. It also gives another explanation for this concept of ideas being "placed" into your head.

Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind

While John Cleese's wonderful book Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide is centered around it, he didn't come up with the Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind concept. That was from Guy Claxton's book, but since I first heard it from Cleese, I'll be takling about my interpretation of his interpretation of it. Basically, it's the idea that when you need to make a decision, often times it's easier to let your subconscious churn it over for you and eventually the idea pops into your head. It's why the phrase "why don't you sleep on it?" is good advice; it offloads the work to the tortoise mind. In Cleese's book, he talks about how this concept relates to his creative process. We often think our normal quick-thinking consciousness brain (i.e the "hare brain") is better at decision making, but it's often the slower subconscious (the "tortoise mind") that produces the important decisions. Basically, "why don't you sleep on it?" is good advice for creativity too. There are some other aspects that Cleese and Claxton talk about in their books, but the main takeaway for our purposes is the hare brain works on initial stages of an idea, which allows the tortoise mind to work through the deeper creative problems. This to me feels more like how the Muses would often bless those who dedicated themselves to creativity more than those who just wanted an idea. However, there is a large emphasis put on how the tortoise mind also is the one to put the ideas into your conscious brain.

Wrapping Up

Something important to note about creative ideas is they're constantly relevant, especially whilst in the middle of a project. The initial idea is the one people think most about, but that's just one component (even if it's arguably the biggest one). As you get deeper into a project, the need for creative problem solving becomes greater and the problems become more focused. Personally, I see the Compost Heap and the Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind not as competitors, but as collaborators in the creative process. They both have this underlying idea that it's your subconscious mind that truly understands and develops creative ideas. To me, the Compost Heap is better for initial ideas, and the Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind is better for building on and developing ideas (though the developed ideas can only happen if there's enough soil for them to grow in! Kind of like the tortoise mind needs enough food to chew through). I think it's important to have both, and trying to utilize both has helped me, and hopefully they will help you too.

That's a wrap on my first blog; thank you very much for reading it!

So long!

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