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.

 

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Just Create

New look! New blog! Well, not exactly…

I want to evolve this blog from being story-centric, to creativity-encompassing. There is a lot of talk in the marketing and blogging worlds about “branding” yourself, a term I despise. It reminds me of farmers branding cows. It’s limiting and I squirm at the thought of being put in a box. I understand the idea behind it – you want your potential audience to know what they’re signing up for when they buy your book or watch your movie or read your blog. Compartmentalization can sometimes be helpful, just not so much for me when it comes to living a creative life.

Korra hates being boxed in too! (animation by Studio Mir)

Korra hates being boxed in too! (animation by Studio Mir)

Part of what I’ve struggled with in writing this blog is figuring out exactly what I want to do with it. It initially began as a way to explore stories and understand why we need them, but it’s also been about Avatar and Legend of Korra. But my creative interests expand well beyond those things, into photography, painting, philosophy, spirituality, sociology, cosmology, nutrition, etc. There are many things which fascinate and inspire me. I try to remain curious and open to new ideas and new ways of understanding myself and the world around me. Story is one way to funnel a lot of these interests, but at the same time, it feels limiting.

I realized the overarching theme I want to explore is creativity and living a creatively satisfying life. So what does that mean, exactly? For me, it’s about living authentically, honestly, and as transparently as possible. It’s about listening to new ideas, taking what works in my life, and discarding what doesn’t. It’s about being proactive and creating a life that inspires me, and sharing what I create, hoping it will inspire others to pursue their own passions.

And this isn’t just about art and writing. Creativity appears in myriad ways across every discipline and aspect of life. I’m not a great cook. In fact I don’t really like cooking, but I am in awe of chefs who can take various ingredients and create something visually stunning and mouth-watering. In an age where craftsmanship has been too often replaced by automation, where fast-food becomes preferable to thoughtful preparation, we lose a connection to what matters. We lose a part of what makes us human.

I totally accept that I sound like an old man lamenting the “good old days.” But I’m not advocating we all move out to the woods, throw away our cel phones, and forage for our own food (though I’ve thought about it). But I often wonder if we’ve lost our connection to our more primal, spiritual selves by moving away from the physical and into the virtual.

When we started the Avatar production in 2003, the artists and I all drew with pencil (or pen) and paper. Other parts of the production used computers to color and composite the show, but by and large, there was a lot of physical evidence of our work. By 2010, nearly everything is done digitally. Everyone still draws by hand, but it’s with a stylus and Cintiq. The exception is at Studio Mir, where the animators all draw with pencil and paper, then scan the drawings into the computer to be colored and composited. The show looks better than it ever has, and I still think the style of each artist comes through in the digital medium, but I can’t help but feel like something gets lost along the way. It’s something small and almost intangible, but I can sense it, like a dream you can’t quite remember upon waking, or a smell that triggers a nearly-forgotten memory.

Would something be lost if this drawing of Tahno was done digitally? (animation by Studio Mir)

Would something be lost if this drawing of Tahno was done digitally? (animation by Studio Mir)

So I guess the reason I’m writing all this is to reaffirm my commitment to creativity, no matter what the form, and to hopefully inspire others to do the same. Because ultimately it doesn’t matter whether we write our novel by hand, or by typing it on a screen. It doesn’t really make a difference if we photograph with film and develop it in a darkroom, or make photos digitally — what matters is that we write the novel, or take the photo, or paint the picture, or cook the food. Just create.

Check out these TED talks (here and here) by Elizabeth Gilbert if you need a creative kick-start. She’s one of my favorite speakers on the challenges and joys of the creative process.

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Legend of Korra: Book 2 Comes to a Close

It was a long, at times difficult journey, but here we are at the end of Book 2: Spirits.

It’s hard to believe, but we wrote the scripts for Book 2 roughly between May, 2011 and May, 2012. We didn’t mix the last episode of Book 2 until Nov. 11, the monday before the show went up on Nick.com. We don’t usually cut it that close, but it was really down to the wire on this round of episodes.

It’s a relief to finally have Book 2 complete and out in the world. (And if you haven’t seen it all, there will be spoilers below…)

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What I’m most proud about in Book 2 is how much we were able to explore the Spirit World and spirituality in general. I want to tell stories that are entertaining, but also enlightening in some way.

Everyone gleans different lessons and nuggets of wisdom from the show, so I don’t mean this as the end-all for what Book 2 is about.  But looking back on this past season, there’s one big take-away for me:

Even though we identify as human beings, we have the potential to tap into something beyond our human forms.

Both Korra’s story and Wan’s story are about humans moving beyond their ordinary abilities, and becoming something extraordinary. Wan used his cunning, bravery, and wisdom to move beyond his humanness, ultimately fusing with Raava to become the first Avatar. And Korra, when she loses her connection to the past Avatars and her Avatar spirit, looks deep within herself and forms a new connection with the cosmic version of herself. When Korra is at her lowest point, Tenzin tells her: “The most powerful thing about you is not the spirit of Raava, but your own inner spirit. You have always been strong, unyielding, and fearless” and that Wan became a legend “because of who he was, not what he was.”

In Hindu philosophy, there is a concept called Atman, which is defined as the “innermost essence of each individual” or “the supreme universal self.” This is my interpretation of what Korra sees and becomes when she meditates. The giant blue Cosmic Korra is a visual representation of her inner essence.

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With this episode, I wanted to show how any one of us has the ability to tap into that cosmic, more-than-human version of ourselves and expand past the possibilities of what we think we’re capable of.

We can all be the Avatar in our own lives.

In Hindu mythology, Shiva takes many different forms. Sometimes he’s destructive, sometimes meditative, other times benevolent. I think of Korra like that. Most of her life she has been in warrior mode, but she is learning that, depending on the situation, she can take other forms.  In our own lives, we put on different forms or act differently, depending on the situation. We act differently with our best friends, than with our parents, or in a business situation.

Through the story of Wan, we come to learn that the Avatar is part human, part spirit. This is how I have come to see all humanity — we’re all part human, part spirit. Like Korra, for a long time I wasn’t aware of my spiritual half, but over the years I’ve become more in tune with it and more accepting of that side of life.

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Theologue by Alex Grey — The union of human and divine consciousness

Joseph Campbell has a couple great quotes related to this in “The Power of Myth”:

“…each of us is a completely unique creature and… if we are ever to give any gift to the world, it will have to come out of our own experience and fulfillment of our own potentialities, not someone else’s.”

“Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.”

This is why stories, when made with love and integrity, contain the possibility to affect personal and societal change. And it’s no coincidence that Book 3 is called “Change.” So get ready, change is coming…

Creating Mythology: The Search for Zuko’s Mother Continues…

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As most of you know by now, at the end of The Search part 1, Zuko finds a letter from his father that suggests he may not be Ozai’s son after all.

This cliffhanger seemed to leave people either excited or angry. Like I wrote about in this post when The Search was released, the expectations for this story were such that no matter what happened, I figured more than a few people would be upset with the way it all played out.

But that was just the first of a three part story. (Part 2 is out now, part 3 released in November.) And a story’s job is to throw a wrench into the character’s and the reader’s experience. The reader stands in Zuko’s shoes when he finds that letter and is left to wonder along with him, “Is Zuko’s whole life a lie?”

This question won’t be answered until part 3, but I love that it brings up so many emotions and questions for people (and for our characters).  As part 2 begins, even Aang is upset and, echoing many of you out there, says: “It can’t be true. Or at least, it shouldn’t be!”

I find it fascinating when readers or viewers are upset by an unexpected turn of events in a story, because this is the very reason we like to read them — to be surprised, to find out what happens next, to have a vicarious experience through another’s eyes. When stories don’t deviate from the expected, they become boring. And no one likes a boring story.

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What I love about the revelation at the end of part 1, is that Zuko finds a sense of freedom in his new knowledge. If he’s not Ozai’s son, that means he’ll be unburdened from his past and all the horrible things that happened to him. He thinks he can start fresh. In fact, Zuko seems to be the most relieved of his friends to find out this news — they’re all looking at the big picture and wondering what it means for the world if Zuko isn’t the rightful Fire Lord. Meanwhile, Zuko just smiles and says he feels hopeful.

This story is not just about the external plot of Zuko searching for his mother, but also his internal search for who he is (or who he thinks he is). And that’s what makes this particular chapter in the Avatar saga much more than just a mystery to be solved.

From a storytelling perspective, the facts of Ursa’s whereabouts was never as interesting to me as what this search means for Zuko.

When stories balance a hero’s external quest with his or her internal one, the tale resonates. I love trying to find that balance in storytelling. I enjoy coming up with plot, action, and the “what happens next” of it all, but if the character’s emotional needs and wants are missing, the story falls flat.

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Bryan and I have been asked many times how much of the Avatar world we knew when we started. Did we already have the idea for Korra when we were making The Last Airbender? (No.) Did we always know where Zuko’s mom was, and were we just keeping that juicy information to ourselves? (Again, no.)

The truth is, there would be no way we could’ve known every detail or character in the Avatar world. When we pitched the series, we laid out a lot of the groundwork for books 1-3 of A:TLA, but characters like Zuko, Zhao, and most of Aang’s adventures had yet to be created.

As J.R.R. Tolkein said in the foreword to Lord of the Rings, “This tale grew in the telling.” Even the godfather (grandfather?) of fantasy didn’t know everything about his own creation.

In developing each book of Korra and the Avatar comics, I have advocated creating the mythology to suit the story and its characters, rather than conform a character’s story to some pre-determined mythological encyclopedia.

When I look at sites like Avatar.wikia, I’m amazed at the volume of characters, places, and creatures that now exist in the Avatar universe. And to be honest, I’ve had to consult it now and then to fact check. Bryan and I may have established the building blocks, but many other writers and artists have helped us construct this growing, living mythology.

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Me and Bryan with Gene Yang, the writer of the Avatar comics

The Avatar tale has grown so much in the telling, and I hope will continue to grow for many years to come.

Violence and story

Following the Aurora shooting, Gangster Squad’s release was delayed and a scene in which a shooting occurred in a movie theater was altered.

After the Newtown tragedy, Paramount delayed the premiere of Jack Reacher; and Showtime put warnings in front of Dexter and Homeland that warned: “In light of the tragedy that has occurred in Connecticut, the following program contains images that may be disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.”

And now, in the wake of the horrible Boston bombing, NBC cancelled a particularly violent episode of the new show Hannibal.

I find it encouraging, actually, that TV and movie studios are sensitive to the public’s psyche after these kinds of terrible events. But I keep wondering, where is that sensitivity the rest of the time? Why is showing a violent show or movie two weeks after a shooting any better than showing it two days after?

I’m the last person who thinks there should be censorship in media. But sensitivity and restraint is another matter. Clearly, when studios hold back episodes and put up warnings on the most violent of their shows, it proves they are conscious that the material may be upsetting to viewers during the days following a tragedy. But what’s the cutoff? Can they really say that after a week or two, the public is back to normal and ready for a heaping dose of violence?

Because while these three events are among the most extreme and publicized in recent memory, shootings and violence and tragedy occur in our society every day. So shouldn’t the studios be sensitive to our collective psyche year-round?

I’m not advocating for banning violence from TV and the movies. I watch Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, both of which feature plenty of violent imagery which can often be disturbing. And I enjoy a good action movie as much as the next guy.

And I’m not just a consumer, I’m on the other side as well, making shows for TV. And both A:TLA and Korra depict or allude to very violent acts, such as genocide, child abuse, and a murder/suicide. These are heavy themes in an animated kid’s show, but they serve to tell a more uplifting story of love, sacrifice, and overcoming adversity. And in writing and drawing the show we are always sensitive to the fact that kids are watching.

In an interview following Newtown, Time Magazine TV critic James Poniewozik told NPR: “If something is actually inappropriate, then we should treat it as if it’s inappropriate at all times, not just inappropriate for two weeks and then suddenly becomes okay again.”

Absolutely. Of course, that’s where things get a little tricky. Inappropriate for whom? And who deems what is inappropriate and what’s not? My girlfriend is much more sensitive to on screen violence than I am, so I usually watch the more intense shows and movies on my own or with friends. It’s different for everybody. But as I’ve explored in some of my other posts, I do believe that what we read and watch affects our brains, so it can’t hurt to tone down the violence in TV and movies if we want to find a little more peace. At the very least, we can begin to explore how these violent stories affect us as people and as a culture. Just saying that on screen violence doesn’t affect us is no longer a valid argument. And based on the actions of the studios following these tragedies, they know it’s true too.

On a side note, welcome to the readers who have found this blog through the Freshly Pressed link. I’m still new to this whole blogging thing, so having WordPress spotlight the Zuko’s Mom post was a nice surprise. I appreciate everyone’s comments and feedback. Thanks for reading!