Ask any creator subject to frequent interviews which questions they dread, and one in particular will come up more than any other: “Where do you get your ideas?” Some have readily spoken and written on the subject — Isaac Asimov, Neil Gaiman, David Lynch — but most, even if they’ve had truly astonishing ideas, have given the subject of ideas in general little thought. The video above, named after the infamous question, compiles a variety of answers from a variety of people, younger and older, famous and less so, into a five-minute search for the source of human creativity.
“I get ideas in fragments,” says Lynch, whose voice we hear amid the many others in the video. “It’s as if, in the other room, there’s a puzzle and all the pieces are together. But in my room, they just flip one piece at a time into me.”
When a good idea comes along, says a twelve-year-old named Ursula, “that’s the feeling they call inspiration.” But Radiolab host Robert Krulwich has a dim view of inspiration: “I’m a little suspicious of the idea like, ‘In the beginning there was nothing and then there was light.’ I don’t think I’ve had that experience, and for other people who’ve said that they’ve had that experience, I’m not sure I believe them.”
“Inspiration is for amateurs,” says artist Chuck Close. “The rest of us just show up and get to work. Every great idea came out of work, everything.” Chalk up another point in favor of Thomas Edison’s famous breakdown of genius as one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration — but what kind of perspiration? As professional skateboarder Ray Barbee sees it, “most people start off by mimicking something, but then it turns into their own thing because they don’t really have the ability to mimic it precisely,” a process that produces “originality from copying.”
“Whenever I finish a story,” says New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, “I go through a period of time where I feel like I will never again have an idea.” But it never lasts as long as it feels: “One day you fall onto something, and it just looks you in the face and says, ‘I’m the one.’ ” That “one” could take the form, according to the video’s contributors, of a chance encounter, a sentence in a story, a yellow ball bouncing down the street, a solitary lawn chair seen from a train window, a dump trick, or many other even less expected entities besides. You just have to be primed and ready to connect it in an interesting manner to other things in your head, in your environment, and in the culture. “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity,” goes a well-known quote often attributed to Seneca — and so, it seems, is creativity.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.