“I dream a lot. I do more painting when I’m not painting. It’s in the subconscious.” —Andrew Wyeth, American painter
Inspiration is a funny thing. When you’re searching for it, it often becomes slippery and elusive. And yet sometimes, in strange and unexpected ways, creative ideas will sneak in unnoticed and take root in our minds.
There are numerous examples of this principle at work among storytellers. For example, William Faulkner received the flash of inspiration for his novel The Sound and the Fury when he encountered a frightened little boy who had climbed a tree and couldn’t get down. (Apparently, the boy had been up in the tree so long he’d soiled himself.) Likewise, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the first line of The Hobbit while he was grading a tedious pile of examination essays. How these experiences morphed into Faulkner’s stream of consciousness novel and Tolkien’s Middle Earth saga is anybody’s guess, but this phenomenon is certainly nothing new among artistic folks.
In perhaps an even more bizarre way, certain imaginative endeavors originate when the creator’s conscious mind is turned off. For instance, James Watson, the famous pioneer of modern genetics research, envisioned the design of the double-helix DNA structure based on a dream involving two intertwined snakes. Elias Howe invented the first lockstitch sewing machine after dreaming he was being chased by Indians who were firing arrows at him through a piece of cloth. In the dream, the arrows snagged some material on the cloth and drew the threads through the tips of the arrows, thus inspiring the up and down motion of what would eventually become automated sewing machine needles. Even Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein began as a dream.
For me, some of my best story ideas have come when I was not thinking about writing at all. Instead, I was doing something else, like taking a walk, mowing the grass, or some other mundane task. Perhaps the combination of doing something involving physical motion (while at the same time requiring very little mental concentration) allowed my mind to wander into that zone where creative ideas emerge. But like trying to see a feint star in the night sky, if you look for it too closely, it fades away. Instead you have to glance at it from the periphery and allow it to reveal itself in its own way and in its own time.