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Ideas Inside a Vacuum

Yesterday, I discussed idea generation with my friend Jarvis Slack on his podcast The Rhetorical Situation. Somehow, we found ourselves asking the question, “If you were trapped in a white, padded room, would you continue to have any ideas?”.

I absolutely believe that ideas are inspired by our interactions with the world. All my thoughts and ideas are born out of conversations I have with other people, inspired by books that I read, or based on my observations.

Alone, in a white padded room, I’d have nothing to see and no one to inspire me. Maybe, at the very least, I’d have ideas about the color white or the size of the room. Maybe I’d have ideas about solitude. But my scope would be limited.

However, assuming that I had spent any time outside of the padded room, I’d probably have ideas based on memories. But can ideas be born from nothing?

Anyone who tells you that his or her ideas are completely original is lying. Even the most creative people draw influence from someone or somewhere else. Sometimes, when I reread books that I know have greatly influenced me, I notice ideas that I have subconsciously used in my own work. This is startling, actually, and very humbling.

It also raises a lot of questions about plagiarism – who owns ideas? Where do we draw the line between a piece of work that has been inspired by another work and a piece of work that copies another work?

In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot wrote, “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone.” The artist belongs to a tradition, one that includes every person who has worked before him. Any student or beginning writer who claims he doesn’t want to read so as not to be influenced by other work is completely ridiculous. Simply by being, by interacting with other people and participating in culture, you have been influenced.

As a writer, avoiding books can only hurt your own ability to generate ideas, not help you.

I definitely think that we remember more than we realize – we store memories in a space that we don’t access on a daily basis. But everything and everyone we encounter makes some kind of footprint in our minds, and the cumulative foot stomping makes us who we are. If you think about every piece of art as the cumulative effect of everything that the artist has ever encountered, doesn’t that make art pretty amazing (not that I didn’t already find it amazing)?

I know that my own writing is a monument to the people, places, and things that have moved me. Carrying that knowledge makes writing seem that much more sacred and special.

(Photo by cdsessums)

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