Sunday, 22 March 2020

Where and When Do You Get Your Ideas? - Heather Dyer

At the moment, my favourite time of day is in the morning, before I’ve started work. I take the dog out briefly, then make a coffee and sit in my armchair watching the morning arrive. That's my dog, there on my lap. It's the only time he sits with me!

I keep my notebook beside me, and think loosely about what I must do that day. And curiously, this is when I seem to get most of my ideas. I feel as though I’m taking a break – but actually I’m quite productive.

There’s a reason for this. Ideas tend to come when our minds are relaxed, open and wandering. This state of mind allows new connections to be made from the ‘data’ in our unconscious. In Mary Roberts Rinehart’s story "Miss Pinkerton", her character says, "And it was while I was folding up that copy of the Eagle and, putting it away for later reading that something came into my mind. I have had this happen before; I can puzzle over a thing until I am in a state of utter confusion, giving it up, and then suddenly have the answer leap into my mind without an apparent reason.”

Isn’t it typical that we come up with a solution, or remember someone’s name, or get a new idea for a story when we stop thinking about it and are doing something else? 

No wonder, “How do you get your ideas?” is a difficult question to answer. How ideas happen is a bit of a mystery. It might be more helpful to reflect on when you get your ideas, or what you were you doing at the time. A recent study found that conference delegates got most of their ideas during the coffee breaks.

I asked some PhD students where and when they tend to get insights at a workshop recently. They gave the following answers:

•            Taking a shower.
•            Making a cup of tea.
•            Going to the toilet.
•            Walking.
•            Waking up in the middle of the night.
•            Doing yoga.
•            Jogging.

I suppose the takeaway message is that it’s counterproductive to work all the time, or think too hard. We do need to think, but then we need to stop thinking. It’s in the gaps that ideas arise – so we mustn’t feel guilty about taking breaks.

Heather Dyer is a consultant in writing for children. She provides writing and publishing advice through The Literary Consultancy, The Writers' Advice Centre for Children's Books, and privately. If you’re ready for feedback on your work-in-progress contact Heather at 

Heather’s children’s novel The Girl with the Broken Wing was one of Richard and Judy’s book club picks, and The Boy in the Biscuit Tin was nominated for a Galaxy Best British Children’s Book award. Heather also teaches creative writing for the University of the Creative Arts, and facilitates workshops in creative thinking techniques for creatives and academics.


Joan Lennon said...

Wise words - thanks, Heather!

Susan Price said...

Agreed. My take is that ideas form and connect with other ideas in 'the subconscious' for want of a better term -- the same place that dreams come from.

If you engage the conscious mind by fretting about solutions to problems, then it gets into an awful tiz and goes into a panic where it just repeats: 'I don't know what to do!' I saw this in students at uni when I was working for the RLF.

If you deliberately put it all aside and go for a walk or swim, go to the cinema, go out on the town -- the choice of displacement activity is yours -- then the conscious mind calms down and relaxes and allows the solutiion invented by the subconscious to suddenly bob up into awareness. Hence the advice: 'Sleep on it.'

Penny Dolan said...

Your creativity posts are always so welcome, Heather.

So many writers speak fondly of their dog-walking times that sometimes - only sometimes - I'm tempted by the thought of one myself.

Anne Booth said...

yes, this is so true. And Penny - you must get a dog!