"Where do you get your ideas?

I was heading out on the road from my driveway to walk.  A truck stopped, disgorged four or five people who were, it seems, there for the farm tour and the winery store down the road. A man stood looking at me, fists on his hips, rared back, said, gruffly, loudly. Even accusingly. "You do all this stuff?" He looked around, surveying an expanse of pasture, fence, house, vehicles, maybe two sculptures. I'd been asked that in the past, and learned the shortest answer suffices. "Yessir!" I answered matching volume and gruffness. He looked around more. Meanwhile a woman had sidled up. Her question was, "Where do you get your ideas?" 

Now, this is a benign though broad query impossible to answer. I have a story concocted about conjuring. "I build a fire of sage and hedge, read the smoke. I import pigeons from New Orleans, hexed birds from a priestess down there, and I roast one over the fire. Then I conjure over it. It tells me what to do and I do it."

  Everything is connected. It’s in the book.

Everything is connected. It’s in the book.

Instead I said, "I don't know. It just sort of happens." That amused all of them, and they conferred over it as I walked away. I played with the thought that the lady was quite serious. Maybe she thought there was an idea store, where silly ideas cost maybe fifteen cents, good ones ten bucks and up. An idea box store.

Where did I get ideas anyway? When I started out in advertising, a notorious sucker-upper of ideas, in a small agricultural print agency in Omaha, I wondered if I would have enough ideas to make a career of it. Daily I scoured the ideascape of my mind for anything that might apply to the problem at hand. Usually how to present grain bins or pesticide or hoof-rot cures to farmers and ranchers. Boilerplate describes the accepted approach.  

Cows in galoshes and gun-toting ag sprays masqueraded as ideas for awhile, but I wanted more substantial stuff. I wanted Bill Bernbach Volkswagen ideas.

  An unprepossessing little book…

An unprepossessing little book…

This was about 1961. I frequented old book stores and thrift shops back then, as now. A book printed in 1940 titled "A Technique for Producing Ideas" found me. It was by James Webb Young, an ad icon. A slim hardback of about forty pages with a ho-hum dust jacket. The designer hadn't read the book. I read some of it there, the rest sitting in my shitty old Valiant. I read it again at home. At work. In bars, waiting rooms, lunch counters.

It's a great book. Great. As with a lot of the really great books, people "update" it, improve it, write new forewords to it--my advice, get the original. A first edition can be found for around $25. Five bucks if you're thrift-shop lucky. If it's in hardback it'll always be an old one. One of them has a foreword by Bill Bernbach--you can't go too wrong on that one. The original's foreword is by Reinhold Niebuhr, and it needs no refurbishing, even by a giant like Bernbach. But many things ain't broke, and they get fixed anyhow (in the book you'll find the Pareto principle and some Paretoisms which deal with that a bit).

I'm not going to tell you what's in the book, but here's a rather too-long review of it, the later edition, by a 2012 Brain Picking. Worth a scan if not a read. Get the book.

  It’s called “Everything is Connected.”

It’s called “Everything is Connected.”

On the day the lady asked me "Where do you get your ideas?" I had begun a sculpture. It's called "Everything is Connected," and, as you'll discover by reading Young's book, it's a bit of a coincidence. Or is it? I had started the piece desultorily, not knowing where it might be going. I had a couple of nicely closed pieces of square tubing from Machine Head, and thought I might use them as the base for the piece. They ended up sort of swinging around in the air instead.

So, where did I get that "idea?" From the past. Connections. Some applied physics. Some things that worked and knowing I could weld mild steel to cast iron if it penetrated well enough. Stuff like that. And a certain lack of fear of being wrong, or being derided. In sculpture as in writing there's their way, there's my way, and there is no "the" way. Get the idea? You will if you get the book. Guaranteed. It's not full of a lot of BS or convoluted exercises.

May your ideas be many and bright.