Category Archives: Getting started

Where do ideas come from?

nose downTrouble, her nose on a scent, is literally down-to-earth when it comes to new ideas. She skims the ground or pushes her nose right into things, seeking and discovering – a peanut hidden by a jay in a drift of yellow leaves, a bit of dead crab inside a fractured shell, a biscuit in a closed hand. What she makes of these discoveries I cannot tell, though I’m pretty sure that she connects them. Like a researcher examining her findings, she formulates a hypothesis and tests it on every excursion, until her conclusions are clear. The neighbourhood is a good place to turn over leaves: if the jays haven’t left peanuts, the cats have often left something else. Beaches are dead-crab buffets. And the nursing home is a good place to snuffle fists.(Old hands hungry for touch often conceal a treat, and the soft thrusting of a nose provides it. Win-win.)

snuffling cropSo often has the hypothesis been tested and proven that Trouble’s discoveries are fast becoming canine laws, and she is disappointed if her neighbourhood experiments yield nothing but an empty coffee cup under the leaves. Generally they confirm an even larger theory – that the world is full of good things.

Human’s ideas come from her own version of sniffing around, and then the application of questions that were instinctive in childhood but became systematic later.

When and where?
And always, insistently, like any two-year-old, why?

The questions launch speculation. What place has this phenomenon in a larger pattern? That’s the intellectual work of the academy, in its simplest terms. What every undergraduate essay is doing. Asking – and answering – so what?

Once in a while, however, an observation, a fact, a detail resists a pattern.

shoe cropThe same questions come into play: Who lost this shoe? And who placed it here to be found? Whatever was the wearer doing to lose one shoe, and not search until it was found again?

An empty shoe on a bleached stump on a sunny autumn day. Innocent, surely. Or is there another shoe somewhere in the undergrowth? And something more sinister?

Speculation begins: is this a murder mystery unsolved? A love story gone wrong? A scavenger hunt abandoned?
Where do ideas come from?

From something familiar uncovered or something odd in plain sight.

So what?

The same question yields both science and story.


Showing up

Trouble’s wants are few; her needs even fewer. She needs to be fed and watered, and given the opportunity to relieve herself and to exercise. She wants stimulation, toys, something (anything) to retrieve, belly rubs, and proximity to the Human. Life is better for all of us when she gets what she wants. Human gets up on a schedule, gets fresh air and exercise, learns new things (rally obedience!), takes regular relaxation sessions (tension and belly rubs are utterly incompatible, even if it’s not your own belly), and enjoys – even basks in – companionship.

Then comes JanuarFrost facey. It’s cold. Often very cold. Cold enough to frost a furry face. And it snows. Deep enough to cover a toller. And Human remembers that she’d rather hibernate than heave herself outdoors, swaddled in a parka and swathed in scarves. Don’t forget the mittens. Two pairs.

But she does. Because Trouble is sitting at the door.

One day, someone told me that I’d be a good writer, eventually – when I was grown up and had something to say. So I got on with other things, and a very long time passed.

One of those other things was teaching students. I had lots of useful advice for them, such as not to wait for clear ideas before starting an essay. “’How do I know what I think till I see what I say?’”  I’d say to them. “Listen to Forster if you won’t listen to me. Get writing.”

Or not to wait around for inspiration or the perfect moment. “’Inspiration is for amateurs ’”  I’d quote Chuck Close: “‘the rest of us just show up and get to work.’”

And if you’d asked me, I’d have said that I practiced what I preached. Despite the pleasures of procrastination, I’d show up at my desk and write until I knew what I was going to say in that memo, or that report, or that scholarly article.

But it was years before I thought to apply the same advice to the question of discovering what else I might have to say.

It isn’t easy. At least with memos, or reports, or scholarly articles, there’s a rhetorical situation that needs to be addressed, a conversation, professional or academic, to be entered, and a mass of material to hand. When I show up to see if I have anything else to say, I feel a bit like Trouble venturing into the snowy wastes. There’s nothing to see when the snow is deeper than you; nothing to convince you that there’s anything at all to be found.

But there is alwayin snows something, even in January. Even when the screen is as blank as the back yard in a blizzard. If you show up.