Where Do Ideas Come From?

“Where do you get your ideas?” is a common question lobbed at artists as if it’s a perfectly reasonable and easy question to answer. It’s usually asked with the same matter-of-factness as: “What did you have for breakfast this morning?” It’s an intriguing question (the idea one, not the breakfast one, though I suppose it depends on how creative you get with your breakfast). But whenever I’m asked it, I’m usually at a loss and offer some vague explanation about my general interests. So I figured it might be a good thought experiment. What if I could travel into my brain and see where my ideas come from? Bear with me for a moment…

I close my eyes. Take a couple deep breaths. I imagine I’m in a tiny spaceship, like in “Fantastic Voyage” or the ’80’s quasi-remake “Innerspace” or Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” ship… Anyway, I zoom along while electrical charges go off all around me. I have to steer the ship, zigging and zagging so I don’t get zapped by all these synapses firing in my brain! I emerge from the brian storm and spot a nice, clear spot to park my ship. I hop out and stretch my legs. The ground feels squishy beneath my feet, like those pseudo asphalt ground coverings at playgrounds. I look out over the vast network of crevasses that make up my brain. It’s like standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon gazing out for what appears to be an eternity. Then something catches my eye. It’s a small bird carrying a closed shell. It drops the shell hundreds of feet and the shell bounces against the brain tissue. As it ascends back towards me the shell splits open and thousands of glittering orbs sprinkle on and around me like confetti and suddenly, an idea comes to me…

So I’m pretty sure that’s not how it technically works, but it’s fun to imagine. And while it might be an entertaining allegory for where inspiration comes from, maybe there’s a more grounded explanation.

In my experience, the creative process is sort of a chicken vs. egg situation — does the idea come first, then you start the creative process? Or is it because you are in the midst of the creative process, that new ideas spring forth? It’s a little bit of both, but more often for me the ideas flow once I’m already engaged in the creative process. While an initial spark of an idea might come while I’m in the shower, or taking my dog for a walk, it’s always a fleeting moment and if I don’t write myself a note about the idea, I often forget it.

So ideas aren’t worth much if they’re not followed up. And usually the follow-up involves a lot of work — examining the initial idea, asking questions and coming up with new ideas, then actually executing those ideas into a form that can be shared out in the world. There’s a great book about the creative process called “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. In it, he lays out how the obstacle to creativity is resistance, both internal and external. Often resistance comes in the form of our own inner voice saying, “I’m not talented enough”, “I’m not smart enough”, “What if I fail?”, “What will others think of my idea?” And on top of that, there are external forms of resistance — organizations or people who aren’t interested in your work. The only solution? Do the work, as Pressfield urges. And I’ve found this to work in my own life. For example, writing this blog. There were plenty of negative thoughts trying to prevent me from writing, but once I shut off those voices and started writing, the resistance began to fade and the words began to flow. Imagine it like a river that’s dammed with sticks and logs. The water is stuck. But just remove one stick, and some water starts to get through. Take out a few more, and soon you have a flowing river again.

So are we any closer to figuring out where ideas come from? We’ve got magical birds in the brain (not too likely) and sitting down and doing the work (much more likely). Let’s take a look at what current neuroscience research knows about creativity.

I was really intrigued by this article in Scientific American. Here’s my layman’s understanding of it. Basically, the idea that right-brained people are more creative has come into question. When engaged in the creative process, our brain uses three different networks, to varying degrees. They’re called the Executive Attention, Imagination, and Salience Networks. Yes, there is an actual Imagination Network in our brains! (That must be where I landed my ship during my thought experiment.) The study of this stuff is still early and there’s a lot neuroscientists don’t know yet. Maybe there will be a day where we can take an MRI scan of our brain and know exactly where a certain idea had its genesis. Though I suppose that would take some of the magic out of making art.

So for now, I’ll be content not knowing exactly where my ideas come from, but confident that if I keep doing the creative work, the ideas will keep showing up. I’ll let my brain networks handle the rest.



14 thoughts on “Where Do Ideas Come From?

  1. I agree. In my experience, ideas are born from my creative processes or spontaneously combust from where I least expect it. Then again, I feel like the creative process is more of a forced train, that might start another trail.

  2. Hah, absolutely. I’d even take what you say a step further and say that I rarely have any unique or creative ideas in a vacuum – when I’m working on a story, I’ll often come up with tons of world elements, characters, scenes &c. However, when I’m not actively working on any projects and I’m too busy to keep consuming any media, that’s when I hit my creative blocks or story issues most hard.

    Glad to see you’re posting again! I missed these. I just finished up a couple of books by Brian McDonald on story-crafting and I’ve been itching for some more storyspeak.

  3. ” ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ has always been the question I’m most often confronted with. (‘Why do you get your ideas?’ is a close second.)” ~Gary Larson

  4. Always enjoy reading your thoughts on creativity. Enlightening, thought-provoking, and inspiring.
    Speaking of ideas, I actually have a question, not about the origins of all your ideas but one in particular: Where did the symbols of the four elements (as drawn by Iroh in A:TLA) come from? Were they found in various cultures or media, or were they designed by you and/or Bryan Konietzko and co?
    I ask because I recently found an ebook series called “Haven” by D.C. Akers, and its covers use the Water, Air, and Earth symbols. The author told me, “The elemental images have been around since the early 80’s,” but I’ve never seen them anywhere except in the Avatar-verse.
    Sorry if this has already been addressed somewhere before. Just curious. Anyway… Keep up the great writing!

  5. Fantastic post. I am curious, however: What books are on your bookshelves? I’m particularly curious about Uncle Iroh’s wisdom and many of the underpinning philosophical ideas of your series. I found your earlier post on books that have helped you with story mechanics very helpful. Any chance of providing us with a similar post regarding source inspirations for ideas that flesh out the philosophical/cultural world of your series? You obviously have very eclectic tastes, but I’d love to be sent on a scavenger hunt of wisdom.

    1. Thanks for the comment! That’s a great question — I think I’ll answer it in an upcoming blog post, so thanks for the inspiration. I just finished reading “The Golem and the Jinni” which I loved. It’s a great mix of historical fiction, mythology, and fantasy.

  6. Your thoughts reminded me of a brainstorming tutorial by French Psychologist & Digital Painter, Cyril Rolando.


    He mentions that creativity cannot be taught, but there are brainstorming processes that help creativity become realized in it’s place.

    Personally, I’ve always believed it was a matter that we, as humans, are prone to conditioning, and through this conditioning we always try to make associations and connections with the ideas, events, and experiences that happen in the world and we try to relate to them in our lives.

    Also, a friend and I once had a discussion about the flow of time. We pondered how moment by moment everything blossoms into a culmination of more moments, in whithc time never stops, and that everything is somehow connected. My friend even shared an article with me about how the structure of the universe is similar to the structure of the neurons in our brain.


    I don’t think the formation of ideas and the flow of time are different from each other.

    In fact, it’s ethereal that we can somehow connect our ideas to each other and that each idea we have is apart of us and with those we share the idea with and somehow everything is moving and changing subtly in a moment, but over a quantitative measure of time change occurs drastically depending on the context of the change.

    1. The connection between the structure of the brain and the structure of the universe is pretty fascinating. I need to look into that more. And that’s an interesting concept that the formation of ideas and the flow of time are similar. Have you listened to the Philosophize This! podcast? You might enjoy it.

      1. Are you familiar with the non-dualistic nature of existence? In a novel I read, “A Tale For The Time Being”, a young fifteen-year-old Japanese girl and her 104-year old great-grandmother have a conversation at the beach, observing the nature of an ocean wave and people surfing on top of the waves. The girl claims that both are different and they are not the same thing. However the great-grandmother claims that they are not the same…but they are not different either; she provides the explanation that a wave is born from deep conditions of the ocean and the surfer is a person born from the deep conditions of the world. A person goes through life in rolling movement much like a wave, physically and metaphorically. With ups and downs, to only come back down again.

        It’s take a certain amount of energy to go up and a certain amount of energy to go down.

        And it seems to me, that regardless of the direction, regardless of the subject matter, there’s an energy that we can appreciate when we go about our lives doing anything, no matter how big or small the task might be. I’d like to add, that this helps us, in understanding and appreciating the willingness of what people can do in their lives.

        However, these structures, these formations, these flows, are practically the same in it’s nature.

        No, I haven’t listened to that podcast. But thanks to you I will be! So far, I’m excited to listen to West’s talk on the Greek philosophers (since I’d like to learn more about the Greeks, their culture, et cetera) and I’m looking forward to all of his other talks too. Thanks for bringing the subject up.

      2. Funny enough, I have that book sitting on pile of books to read right now. I love all these ideas you’re talking about, but must admit I need to ponder them further!

  7. You need to read it. There are moments in the book where it can be provocative, heart-breaking, and hilarious, all in one moment. I hope you’ll like it, when you find yourself with the chance and willingness to engage yourself in the story and it’s characters.

    Of course! It’s important that you ponder your /own/ basis on these ideas, before taking in consideration of mine. I was just having too much fun, writing down all of this is all~

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