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Where do ideas come from?

The way in which our brain generates ideas is one thing that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, although I think animals are capable of having ideas, too. My dog, for example, relies for most of his behaviour on inbuilt urges and impulses that we call instincts. Chasing cats and squirrels, for example, is a behaviour that’s pretty much hard-wired into him. It’s not a life choice that he’s made, after careful consideration of the options available to him. That is not to say that he doesn’t sometimes have what we might classify as ‘ideas’, however. On occasion, he will get up, go and find his squeaky toy and bring it to me. He sets it down at my feet, looks up at me, and in a kind of imaginary speech bubble I see the words, ‘Go on. Play with me,’ form there.

I think a clearer division exists in terms of imagination. I don’t think my dog is much given to imaginative flights of fancy. I do not think he dreams of worlds of his own invention where he may sprout wings and chase those squirrels right up into the trees. It would doubtless be interesting to question him on this, if only it were possible!

The writer is constantly faced with the necessity (or perhaps the compulsion) of conjuring into existence purely notional worlds that have no existence in fact. Sometimes these worlds may approximate closely to our general lived experience, and sometimes they might be utterly fantastic places populated by dragons and unicorns. In either case, the writer is setting up a stage, on which the characters they create can act out their dramas. Telling stories is a fundamental part of what it is to be human. The earliest one I know of, the Epic of Gilgamesh, dates back as far as the 3rd millennium BCE, but we may surmise that passing on stories through oral tradition is as old as humanity itself. The strange world of dreams is often a starting point for such stories. We are reminded of the visionary dreams of Joseph in Egypt, that predicted the woes that would beset that country in the Old Testament and of the role that ‘God-given’ visions have had in influencing the course of history.

There is, in my opinion, a particular ‘sweet spot’ that exists between sleeping and waking. I am no scientist, but I have read that there are different stages of sleep, in which the brain is either very active or in a deeply dormant state, in which the body recovers from the day’s exertions, and the brain works to catalogue and interpret the experiences of that day. In the phase I mention, the brain is at its most creative. I can rarely remember my dreams, but sometimes when I am conscious of being in this state, I can turn my mind to resolving the issues I face in developing the plot lines of my stories. I may have spent hours during the day in worrying about how to extricate one of my characters from the predicament I have placed them in, but when I am close to waking, or close to going to sleep, the answer comes unbidden to the threshold of my mind. The challenge then is to capture it, to lure it closer until a different part of the mind can set it down and make a permanent record of it before it is too late. It is like wildlife photography. That rare and exotic bird is there, tantalisingly close, and I must creep up upon it, slowly, carefully, with my camera, so that it may not be startled, fly up and be lost to me forever. There is a tension between sleeping and waking at those times. Part of my mind urges me to shut down this tiresome and energy intensive imaginative activity and drop into deep sleep. Another part, insists that I swim up to the surface of wakefulness, take a deep breath and get it written down before it’s too late. I usually keep a pen and pad of paper at my bedside for exactly this purpose.

‘How do you even think of this stuff?’ my wife sometimes asks me, and the truth is that, like most things, practice makes perfect. Daydreams as well as night dreams are the realms from which ideas emerge. My teachers would tell you that I was a very prolific daydreamer. All those long hours gazing out of the classroom windows during lessons, whilst the teacher’s voice became a barely perceptible background drone, were hours well spent in the perfection of my craft, if less conducive to understanding of Physics, Mathematics and French etc. There too, I might tread the fertile plains that lie between waking and sleeping, and ‘see what dreams might come’, to quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

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