Where Do Ideas Come From? David Lynch, Robert Krulwich, Susan Orlean, Chuck Close & Others Reveal Their Creative Sources

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed David Lynch Explains Where He Gets His Ideas

Isaac Asi­mov Explains the Ori­gins of Good Ideas & Cre­ativ­i­ty in Nev­er-Before-Pub­lished Essay

Where Do Great Ideas Come From? Neil Gaiman Explains

John Cleese on the Ori­gin of Cre­ativ­i­ty

Rod Ser­ling: Where Do Ideas Come From?

Kurt Von­negut: Where Do I Get My Ideas From? My Dis­gust with Civ­i­liza­tion

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.

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