Where do ideas come from?

(This was originally posted on the Literature Network site back in October 2010. It's quite a light post, but the concept of ideas existing independent of writers keeps turning up in the literary theory I'm currently reading. There is far more to this than I realised a couple of years ago)

What if there was an actual place ideas came from? James Burt has a good look around Idea Space.

Writers are often asked where they get their ideas. Their answers are sometimes glib – Harlan Ellison once replied “Poughkeepsie” and Neil Gaiman used to suggest ‘from the Idea-of-the-Month Club,’ or ‘a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis’. My favourite reply is one I’ve heard attributed to Arthur Miller: “If I knew, I would go there more often.” Wouldn’t it be something to visit the place ideas come from?

The writer Alan Moore has talked at length about the world of ideas, referring to it as ‘ideaspace’ and ‘the Immateria’. Moore suggests it is a place where “philosophies are land masses and religions are probably whole countries … The actual ideas represent the equivalent of solid objects in terms of that space. An idea may be a pebble, a rock, a mountain or a whole continent in terms of its stature” Our minds might be the Ideaspace equivalent of a house, personal to us, with a shared world outside. As Moore says elsewhere, “it’s tempting to think that the idea could … have been a solid thing floating in a mutually accessible space you happened to come across, and so did somebody else,”

(This is the sort of things comic book writers come out with all the time. They seem to have more fun than literary writers, experimenting with magic and bumping into their characters in the real world. It’s fine hearing an author talk about craft and inspiration, but isn’t it more exciting to read someone discussing the time “The demon Asmodeus… appeared to me as a web of spiders that kept turning itself out into a dimension we don’t have”? I can spend hours reading interviews with people like Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, and Alan Moore.)

Even if you don’t agree with Alan Moore’s ideas, it’s worth thinking about what it would mean if ideas exist independently of writers. For a start, there’s nothing to stop someone you’ve never met having the same idea minutes after you. In such a world it wouldn’t be the raw ideas that had value but what was done with them. Ideas, on their own, are worthless.

Consider calculus: it was publicised independently by both Leibniz and Newton. It’s almost as if the idea was determined to enter our world. In fact, there’s an ongoing philosophical debate in mathematics as to whether mathematics exists in the universe, or is something invented by humans. Ideaspace is a concept mathematicians take quite seriously: would an intelligent alien species use triangles or did humans invent them?

Ideas often work in strange ways. The author Ben Schott was accused of plaigiarism for an article containing similar anecdotes to one written by the wonderful Anne Fadiman (if you’ve not read her book Ex Libris you really should). One possibility is that Schott, intentionally or unintentionally cribbed the earlier essay. But what if the elements that occur in both essays had come to Schott independently of their appearance in Fadiman’s essay? The sneaky nature of ideas would leave him looking like a plaigiarist. (Personally I love both essays and think the world is a better place for having both of them, regardless of the overlaps).

The thing I like best about the concept of ideaspace is that it implies ideas are everywhere. The trick is making them into something. Warren Ellis has publicly talked about his method for finding ideas, and Charlie Stross has provided a worked example. Ideas should be easy to come up with: what’s the worst thing that’s happened to you? What’s the most shameful thing you’ve ever done? The trick is moulding them into something remarkable. And if you’re only going to have one idea in your life, well, you’re probably not going to make much of a writer.

But if you don’t believe in Ideaspace then where do you get your ideas from? And what happens to all the ideas you never use? Who do they belong to?

If you want to follow what I'm up to, sign up to my mailing list

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *