Patrick E. McLean : Just what it says on the tin.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

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What’s the worst interview question ever? For a creative person, I think it’s “Where do you get your ideas?” Such a bullshit question. I saw an interview with Anthony Quinn, who in an addition to being an actor had quite a prolific career as an artist and sculptor. When the interviewer asked him, “where do you get your ideas” he literally shouted the answer, throwing both hands in the air as if to shoo away the stupidity of the question. His answer?


I’ve always remembered the immediacy and the violence of his response.

It’s a useless question because there’s no useful answer that one person can give to another. There is only encouragement and sympathy. Which really boil down to:

“Use the Force Luke.”


Oh, man, I have been there.

But still, I am fascinated by the process of ideation. So I’m going to take a minute to babble on about it.

For me, it’s like this: I listen to a quiet space in my mind and then something fills it. Sure, there’s logic and problem solving and all that stuff, but a the very root of it,
that’s what it is. I think they natter on about it in Zen Buddhism — the void — formless and inexhaustible. A lottery machine that never runs out of ping pong ball numbers.

Where do the ping pong balls come from? No clue, they’ve kept coming.

From The Tao Te Ching

The Tao is like an empty bowl
Which being used can never be filled up.
Fathomless, it seems to be the origin of all things

The Greeks had a great mythology of creative work. There were mortals, mere shlubs like you and I, who would try, for example to write a song. Most of the time, it would very hard or come out shit or both. I mean, no surprise there, if you’ve ever tried to make something. right? That’s life.

But every so occasionally, it would be effortless and come out great. I read an interview with Paul McCartney or Paul Simon — anyway it was a great songwriter named Paul so, one of two — and he said that when he sat down to write a song it was a 25 minute thing. It either came out whole and perfect, or no amount of polish would fix it.

This isn’t an amatuer. This is one the best in the world, right?

My old Art Director partner, used to call it the cookie jar. There was a window of up to two hours. And in that window the jar was open. Ideas came eaisily and well. And then, bang, the lid was slammed on the cookie jar and you just couldn’t think of anything new.

It’s demoralizing. It’s confusing. It’s just the way it is.

The Ancient Greeks explained this inexplicability with, as Ancient Greeks were wont to do, a myth. Specifically about the intercession of specific godesses they called the muses. There were nine of them. Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Erato, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, Urania.

Homer appeals to Calliope, the muse of epic poetry at the beginning of both the Oddessy and the Illiad. Here’s the opening of the Illiad, from Robert Fagles translation:

Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles. . . .

He’s in viting the muse to tell the story — not him

And this, from the Oddyessy.

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove –
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return. . . .

So do I believe that a muse actually descends upon me and hovers over my shoulder as I do my best work? No. I wish I could.

But it helps me to remember that I am not whatever gifts and talents I may have. My talent is a horse, and I am a rider. And everyone who has ever ridden a horse knows, you are not really in control of the animal.

And if you forget it, or try to be too much of a jerk about getting where you need to go, the horse will buck your ass off to remind you who is really in charge.

And that’s kind of the way it works for me. It’s a void that barfs out lottery numbers AND it’s a beautiful godess that inspires ANDa horse that every once an a while tries to buck me off and stomp me flat — it’s all of that rolled up into one.

So thank you very much for having me on the program, Mr. Interviewer — that’s where I get my ideas.

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