Discover more from the Empathy List
the Empathy List #105: Ask Better Questions, Part 3
Where do ideas come from? Practices to cultivate inspiration.
Hello friend, Liz here.
Today I’m returning to a past theme I’ve written about: question-asking. If you want to catch up before you read this edition, click on the posts below. Or you can jump into the three practices I use to cultivate my own inspiration as a writer.
Every once in a while a reader asks me, where do your ideas come from?
Remember these? These are the first in my question-asking series.
I am a generalist writer, one who refuses to be set on a single “beat” (in journalistic terms), though I reliably circle Christianity.
Aside from writing about Christian stuff, however, I have written and published essays about:
flag design (vexillography),
the origin of graffiti,
the psychology of lying to our kids about Santa,
the minds of birds,
the oldest near-human fossils,
the art we’ve launched into outer space,
the invention of the cardboard box,
the composition of chlorine,
how a shell is made,
the psychology of boundaries,
the “death of the author” literary theory,
and a linguistic term for mothers who have lost children.
Though my evangelical upbringing did not necessarily encourage such free-ranging intellectual exploration, I have come to see this as one of my superpowers. I can ferret around the internet (or library) until I have a stack THIIIIIIIIIIS high, all of which can become writing inspiration.
And today, I’m sharing my practices for putting yourself in the way of good ideas.
This is a personal list, not an exhaustive one, but I do hope to give you tools to be a better writer and reader. (God knows we need better writers and readers in this world!)
#1 is about allowing a diversity of people to influence you.
#2 is about allowing a diversity of knowledge to influence you.
And #3 is about allowing those ruminations to reoccur to you with God’s help.
HOW I GET MY IDEAS:
#1 Attend to voices unlike my own.
Consider the voices you let into your head daily through radio, tv, podcasts, periodicals or books. Do the voices you favor have anything in common? Do you listen to/read the perspectives of those who are more like you than unlike you? Do you spend any time with voices who are unlike you?
My storytelling prowess grew exponentially when I expanded my listening/reading beyond Christian white cis men and women.
However, the shift did not come naturally. I had to intentionally seek out those different-from-me voices.
So, how did I find them?
Practically speaking, this looked like:
I typed into instagram’s search bar “Black creators.”
I noted the bios of authors I read to discover their gender or racial identities.
I subscribed to BIPOC- and queer-hosted podcasts.
When celebratory months arrived—Black History, Women’s History, Pride, AAPI—I read and saved round-up/notable lists, then subscribed, read, listened to these new inputs.
I watched “Queer Eye.”
I searched book review sites for non-white authors to stock my bookshelf that had been white for too long (my own bias and the bias of the academy that trained me as a writer). In fact, I found that I also wanted to bring more women’s voices to my bookshelf overall, especially women of color, so I cleaned house, asked friends for recommendations and ordered stacks of titles.
I popped my Christian bubble.
I started to see my own world through new eyes.
In fact, my empathy for the stories, experiences, and humans I encountered gave me a deeper knowledge of God’s own diversity and God’s great joy in the range of human experience. God’s own creativity is wide and broad and deep, exemplified foremost by the wide ranging character of humanity on our planet.
#2 Watch, read, and listen outside of my discipline.
Your job might be professor, nanny, pharmacist, landscape designer, painter or plumber, all worthy professions. But if you’re looking to be inspired, to do meaningful and unique creative work, you must step outside of your discipline to find ideas.
If #1 is putting your way of a diversity of people and their personal stories, then #2 is putting yourself in the way of a diversity of knowledge.
My Christian upbringing curated a list of pre-approved reading, watching and listening for me. Yet to grow as a creative, I had to step into the wide stream of information, even information that seemed dangerous to my faith.
I’ll talk more about these “dangerous” cultural artifacts in the next post in this series, when I’ll have a conversation with my pal,, author of , who, like me, has recently sought out the banned book list in recent years despite her conservative childhood.
But growing in my own art practice meant reaching around barriers previously erected for my “safety” in favor of freedom as an adult. Now, I read and consume widely—very widely.
In fact, widening your knowledge base is a documented means of tapping creativity, based on the psychological concept of associative thinking.
So, your brain subconciously makes connections all day long between unlike things, twining them together in surprising ways. When we talk about creativity, we do not typically mean that a creator has invented something from out of nowhere, something completely unheard of and never before explored. Usually, we understand that creativity is not the entirely novel, but a unique and unexpected combination of familiar elements.
Creativity is about surprise, both for the creator and her audience.
I have found that if I want to surprise my readers, I first need to be surprised first as a creator.
So I cultivate my own surprise by pursuing topics outside of my expertise, knowledge that might seem “out of left field” from my primary interests.
Doing this gets me thinking thoughts I never thunk before, ;-) which in turn leads to unexpected associations between what I do know and my new learnings, which in turn becomes ideas that fuel unique works of writing.
But the hardest part of this is letting go of any of my own judgments about my interests. This is exploration to the max, no holds barred, and requires an openness and generosity toward ourselves as we edge toward new topics that interest us. We may feel nerdy, transgressive, or dumb in these new spaces—and that’s okay.
Learning something new is vulnerable and you can do it!
Practically speaking, this looks like:
I type random topics into Wikipedia’s search bar to see what comes up (“abstract art,” “twins,” “extinct species,” “radioactive”).
Weekly, I skim a variety of news sites across the political spectrum: the New York Times, the Washington Post, Slate, Vox, the Denver Post, Christianity Today, Sojourners, Religion News Service, the Cut, Harper’s, Wired.
I watch cooking shows, art documentaries, mystery dramas, comedy… basically everything and anything that piques my interest.
BTW, when I think of associative thinking, I think of Bill Murray in “What About Bob?”:
“Okay, some free associations from my infancy: a beachball, a dog, a frog, a log, a poodle, a noodle, a doodle…” (1:35-1:51)
#3 Cultivate boredom.
I’m certain you’ve heard about boredom’s magical link to creativity by now.
The gist is: when your mind has nothing to do, you start to tell yourself stories. Or ask yourself questions. Or mull on past events.
When I get bored, my mind can run wild, in ways both helpful and unhelpful.
For example, sitting now at my dining room table, I can see past my deck and into my vegetable garden and a range of questions occur to me: Have the peas flowered yet? Have drought restrictions lifted in my city because of all this rain we’ve been having? What makes a plant drought tolerant? How do plant genetics work, and how do we change a plant’s genetics? How does climate change factor into the urgency of breeding more plants to be drought tolerant and who is doing that research?
If people are around—say I’m seated on a park bench—then maybe I’ll tell stories about them in my head.
Yes, you can expect intruding to-do lists and negative thinking patterns when you allow boredom to enter. But even those can be redirected.
For example, as I snap to thinking about my family’s schedule for the next two weeks, I consider my childrens’ upcoming swimming lessons which involve a complex dance of gear, clothes, and multiple trips ferrying them to and from camp to pools and back to camp again. But instead of letting my anxiety lead, I redirect, wondering, where else will my children swim in their lifetimes, which oceans and rivers and pools? I think back to the swim lessons I remember as a child, the smell of chlorine and the cling of my swimsuit, the humidity inside the tented outdoor pool, the echo of voices on the concrete pad.
The fact is, when we force ourselves into solitude, then we naturally notice our environment, both internal and external, and questions emerge that can become writing prompts.
This boredom helps us to draw connections between all our learnings and our own bodies and experiences. We can connect to the deepest question—”so what?”—that offers purpose to our creative work. Who cares about plants? Well, anyone who eats a vegetable, that’s who, including me, including my children and my chickens and my husband, including those whose environments will no longer permit them to grow the same species of pea that their grandma used to grow because of climate change. And just like that, purpose emerges, an entire essay ready for harvest.
In fact, I often find that spending time in stillness allows me to note which ideas seem urgent, and I often attribute unexpected passion toward one idea or another to the Holy Spirit’s quiet direction. I almost never HEAR A VOICE or see other types of neon signs that make it overwhleming clear what my next project will be, but I do tend to feel an interior certainty. Sometimes I’ve called it a nudge.
You know that feeling of a beloved friend looking over your shoulder? How they might not even be in the room, might have even passed away, but you know exactly what they’d say to you and you can hear their voice in your head as if they’re brushing elbows with you on the couch? That’s what it feels like when a creative idea stands out to me and I know travelling in that direction is a God idea.
Writing is an inherently meditative process and when we invite stillness into it, then we also invite God there.
Practically speaking, this looks like:
Setting aside time—say 30 minutes—to be alone, either in a private or public space, just you and a notebook.
Write down any to-do lists that occur, then put them out of your mind. Focus doggedly on the questions and feelings that emerge during that still time and write those down briefly, jotting notes. You know you will return to these pages later to write or research more, so for now, only make notes; this time is thinking time, not writing time.
You can pray during this time or not. You can verbalize in your head or not. You can bend into child’s pose or go for a jog around a nearby lake. The exact details don’t matter because the important part is removing the stimulation of other voices and tasks so that your mind can run a marathon or two in their absence.
Then, hopefully, you’ll encounter surprise
For another guide on finding unique stories in this internet age (an age that feels like every story has already been told ad nauseum), I recommend Latif Nasser’s insights in this episode of Radiolab.
Creativity is not one-size-fits-all. So I’m eager to hear all about your practices, too!
Yet over the past 10-ish years of my writing life, I have found these three broad practices have guided me well, both as a human and an artist, toward deeper empathy and curiosity, and ultimately, toward God.
I believe that the deeper we go into this universe, the more of God we get to see, friends! Because God’s generosity extends into every corner, discipline and person. We need the unique mystery of every human to glimpse the full range of God’s love for us.
And so we go further up and further in. ;-)
Thanks for reading.