The other day, I was speaking to someone I hadn't met before about my journalism. I was talking about the process of pitching, and they asked me where I got my ideas from.
The answer I wanted to give - the answer that is 100% true, but explains nothing - is from my head.
Ideas for features pop into my head at random times of day. So do ideas for books (I lament all the novels and non-fiction I'll never have time to start). I also have what I call pointless entrepreneurial lightbulb moments. These are where I spot a gap in the market and fantasise about how, when I have a spare 10000 hours, I can start a new business venture and become a multi-millionaire within a year or two. It's pointless conjecture, but I love being proved right when someone with more time and focus than me fills that gap. Smoothies and karaoke bars? I was there first, in the mid-nineties. Purely in my head, you understand.
To give the question a proper answer, however, there are two parts. The first answer - the one my new acquaintance was expecting - is literally, where do the ideas come from?
If you have aspirations to write, you'll need to generate ideas - especially for journalism, if you're going to pitch for commissions. Some writers keep up to date with the news - most columnists take a recent current affairs story and spin their own take on it. If you've a weekly beat, that's a useful way to generate your own words without having to come up with a fresh topic constantly. Monthly (or in my case, six-weekly) columnists will often take a theme they know will be current at the moment of publication, such as the Queen's Jubilee. And again, they will spin their own take on it.
(Btw if you're interested in the most popular columnists in the UK, see this YouGov poll from 2022. If you enjoy dividing the room, it's a great profession to enter.)
For myself, I prefer content that doesn't age over time - evergreen, to give it its official title (more on that here). My ideas often emerge from conversations I have, culture I consume (of all kinds, including social media), and topics that bob up through my personal experience. Trying new things is key to generating ideas. Even if I don't end up writing about the thing itself, inevitably something will crop up that gives me an idea for a feature or a column.
The most difficult experiences often generate the greatest amount of ideas. At the moment, I'm recovering from post-covid fatigue. I've had to inhabit an entirely new way of living. My morning stride across the hills has transformed to a slow five-minute stroll around my local park (luckily, it's next to my house). I've had to learn that it's OK to take the bus for a journey that I would normally walk. I've discovered how to ask for things instead of being independent. Boundaries have been set - saying 'no' has been essential for my recovery. As in the pandemic, when we started taking for granted small things like being out of the house for an hour, I've learned the joy in even smaller things. Listening to morning birdsong through my open window. Being driven to the pool to float in the water for a short while (I'm normally a middle lane charger-up-and-down).
In the future, all this will alchemise into so many ideas. I'm certain of it - even if they don't exactly relate to my direct experience now. I know this, because I went through a huge crisis a few years ago that changed my life and ended up with me writing a book about stress management, and becoming a wellbeing journalist.
If you yearn to write, first go about getting yourself some difficult experiences... Just kidding ;) Instead, throw yourself into the new, with a wide-open mind. It's a great comfort when you've been persuaded against your better judgement to attend that excruciating poetry night. (We've all been there). Or you end up camping in Wales in the middle of a flood (perhaps that's just me). It's all good material is a cliché, but it's true.
But there's a second answer to that question. It's not only where you get your ideas from, but how you get yourself into a headspace where the ideas can come to you. It's a strange thing, but if you're creative you'll know that sometimes you can't stop the ideas from coming, whereas at others you'll feel like a well that's run dry.
I think that's inevitable (I wrote a feature on that, about embracing the creative fallow). And I don't have all the answers, but for me what works is keeping myself replenished with what feeds me. Walking in the countryside clears my head and allows my dreams to wander. And although I've been unable to do that recently, even looking out of the window at the nearby trees helps. Slowing down my pace. Making time for activities that nurture me. I write about 'blank time' in my book as a way of helping with frazzle, but it also helps as a sort of broom to sweep the brain of debris. It gives it the space to dream and be inspired.
It's strange - or maybe it's not strange - that what helps me to write, and give me ideas, is the same thing that I write about. It's often called self-care, but the term has become overused recently. Perhaps self-prioritising might be a more appropriate term. So where do I get my ideas from? In a nutshell, by putting myself first.
Takeaways: where to get ideas
Keep yourself open to new experiences. Have conversations. Listen. Try lots of culture.
Prioritise activities that feed you. Get headspace. Allow yourself to dream.
I'd love to help you communicate better - with other people, and with yourself. If you need help with written words, I'm the person to come to. And if you want in-person coaching or tuition - contact me below for more details . Or find out about my group and one-to-one workshops for frazzled people and creative sorts.