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When Do Ideas Happen?

The Canadian painter Robert Genn writes a terrific, twice-weekly newsletter. While Genn writes primarily about painting, his thoughts apply to any creative pursuit, including writing — and we’ve reposted his letters here several times before. The gem below, which looks at the situations that generate ideas, is reprinted by permission.

Recent research, aimed at finding specific triggers that result in good ideas, better solutions and bouts of creativity, has confirmed my own favourite times when stuff happens. Here are a few:

When we step away: Focusing at your workstation doesn’t always work, particularly if you do too much of it. Leave your cubicle or studio and step into a new environment. Great stuff is ready to grab out there, floating in the ether.

When we’re in transition: Waking up, falling asleep, showering, tubbing, or going to the bathroom are hot times for new ideas. We need to trust the possibilities of fleeting brain waves at these times and take the trouble to knock them down for further study.

When we’re drinking: Moderate drinking gives confidence and gusto. A 2012 study at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that students who drank enough to raise their blood-alcohol level to 0.075 performed better on tests of insight than sober students.

When we’re doing chores: This may be one of the reasons why so many artists prefer to have their studios at home. I absolutely don’t want this sort of information passed around, but I personally find stimulation in washing cars, taking out the garbage, and helping our gardener move bags of manure.

When we’re satisfied: A relatively fulfilled life calms the mind and enriches the ground for idea growth. I’ve tried frustration, anger, disappointment, tiredness and misery, and they all work to a degree, but joyous satisfaction and a sense of élan work best.

When we’re daydreaming: It turns out that daydreaming is one of the most valuable things that creative people do. Even the fantasizing of chicks that bedevils a lot of men apparently hastens bubble-up ideas from the subconscious that have nothing to do with women. What women need to fantasize, I’m not sure.

When we see green: Green surroundings, whether green-painted walls or the green outdoors, suggest new growth, rebirth, fertility, and renewal — just one of the reasons why a walk in the park can be so fruitful. Feeling non-creative in the studio? Squeeze out some green.

Best regards,


PS: “When students were given creativity tests, those whose test-cover pages had a green background gave more creative answers than those whose pages were white, blue, red or grey.” (Sue Shellenbarger, reporting in the Wall Street Journal)

Esoterica: Personal and unique fetishes can be useful as well. For a steady flow of creativity, easel-time foot-massage has been recommended, as has military marching music played loudly. I notice slight rises when I consult or share minor triumphs with Dorothy the Airedale. She is non-confrontational, always eager, never critical, and I know she’s quite fond of me. Sometimes she likes my creativity so much she sleeps on it. In other words, she’s a low-maintenance muse. ‘Scuse me, she just came in, and now she wants out.


Don’t miss the treasure trove of Genn’s letters here.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nice to be reminded I am on the right track. I have been feeling a little stuck lately and trying hard not to beat myself up.

    April 10, 2013
    • Beating of self is forbidden, Alisha! 🙂

      April 12, 2013
  2. I ALWAYS regret not writing down the fleeting ideas during transitions…

    April 10, 2013
    • Right, Sharon? You tell yourself, “Oh, I’ll totally remember THIS one….” and an hour later you’re like “Nooooooooooo!!” 😦

      April 12, 2013
      • EXACTLY! They’re so good…little sparkly diamonds of thoughts. How can you possibly forget them?
        And yet….sigh.

        April 12, 2013
  3. Okay, got it. the key to breaking through this case of writer’s block I’ve been experiencing lately is to set up my laptop in a green room and enjoy a beer while my wife gives me a foot massage. 😉

    Seriously though, the timing of this couldn’t be more impeccable. Thanks again, Miranda!

    April 10, 2013
  4. Jody@FakingSane #

    Walking. Alway get my best ideas either walking outside or running on the treadmill. It makes sense to me that daydreaming and downtime, falling asleep or stepping away are the creative moments. It’s hard to be in the idea-formation stage of creativity when you are focusing on details. Easier for me when my mind is able to sort of hover or float about.

    April 10, 2013
    • I totally agree, Jody. Sometimes you just need to create some space — or the ideas can’t emerge.

      April 12, 2013
  5. Great advice. For me it’s either walking the dog or quiet drives (no passengers, radio, or heavy traffic).

    April 10, 2013
    • I’m totally with you on the quiet drives, Kate. Sometimes it’s like a warm bath, just being in the car with no music, no radio…like your mind can actually unfurl a little bit.

      April 12, 2013

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