Ideas, Concepts, and Themes

"You don’t choose a story, it chooses you. You get together with that story somehow; you’re stuck with it. There certainly is some reason it attracted you, and you’re writing it trying to find out that reason; justify, get at that reason." 
       —Robert Penn Warren

"Creativity" requires creation. Having something in your mind that you can't share is not being creative—it's just being frustrated. Frequently, however, what seem to be "creative" problems are simply issues of trying too soon to execute an idea which hasn't been sufficiently formed. With an understanding of the process, though, you will be able to break through the blocks and get back to creating the things you care about.

Creativity is a delicate process. Nothing can be created until one has an idea about something. The process of generating ideas, however, is a surrealist process of the mind. It's not a problem to be solved, and therefore isn't susceptible to force or hard work, or even active contemplation. There are no special circumstances one can create to bring an idea to the consciousness. Instead, ideas come at those times when the consciousness is quiet. The first step in solving creative blocks is to let your mind start talking to your consciousness.

The Three B's

In The Task of Gestalt Psychology, Wolfgang Köhler recalls a physicist telling him: "We often talk about the three B's: the Bus, the Bath, and the Bed. That is where the great discoveries are made in our science." Köhler, at 163. This story is often recounted, but most commentators miss the underlying link among these activities and instead emphasize their aspects of routine.

Even just lingering in the bedroom is often effective because it's a place of peace.
There are salient links between the bed, the bath, and the bus which are instructive in understanding how a person engages in the surrealist dialogue. Specifically, the "Three B's" are all situations which involve these factors: consent of participation; a form of confinement; a form of physical disorientation; a time limit, and comfort in the form of passive control through a concept of purpose.

These features make an environment in which ideas can leap forward because they quiet our fundamental motives to act. When we have to act—i.e., make decisions and do things—our consciousness is busy and its noise drowns out the mind. When we are in a situation where our action is—by our consent—delayed, then the consciousness quiets down, waiting for the next time it's needed. It's in this space that the mind can wander and ideas can come to the surface.

Showers work, too.
Many things other than the bed, bath, and bus will create the surrealist state in which ideas may be realized. Seeking out and engaging in those situations which work for you is a vital step in getting your ideas flowing. It may be having a cigarette, a cup of coffee, going for a bike ride, a jog, or a walk—but whatever it is, it should have as many of the factors contained in Three B's for maximum potential.

You should also be constantly prepared to capture your ideas before they drift away. I often turn to my iPhone for assistance. A note taking app like Simplenote lets me capture an idea on my iPhone, and whatever I write is also accessible on my computer through an app, or on the web. Making audio notes works for some. Also, a Moleskine is a great option, because the act of handwriting can be beneficial to furthering ideas, and seeing seemingly disparate ideas together on the same page often leads to connections or additional ideas.

Buses are surprisingly quiet.
In the process of capturing your ideas, don't judge them. Ideas are just the first step, and the only thing that matters is that your mind has given you an urgency about the idea. What it means and what you'll do with it will be discovered later.

Ideas to Conceptions

An idea is the start of things, but not much good will result if you stop there. An idea is usually just a clue to a much larger puzzle on which the mind is working. It's necessary to pursue an idea, but it isn't sufficient. It's important to keep ideas in their context so that you can develop the idea into concepts.

Concepts are collections of connected ideas. Your idea may be to make images of raindrops on a window, but the concept may really be about a peaceful mood. Or about types of weather. Or about feeling trapped. Or about how myopic we can be when we don't look beyond the window. Whatever the concept is, it will be larger than the original idea, and it will be susceptible to more interpretations.

Ideas can strike anywhere. Invite them in.
Failing to develop ideas into concepts is a fundamental mistake that leads many people to dissatisfaction over their creative product. Bad travel pictures are an example: capturing an image in front of the Eiffel Tower may be a documentary record of your idea about that place, but it's very unlikely to encompass the concept of Paris and what it meant to you. To tell that larger story, you'll need more ideas and more images representing each of them. These individual ideas will link up to form your concept of what it means to be in Paris.

Ideas are too isolated and allowing them to link into a concept is an improvement, but even concepts aren't enough to satisfy a deep need for artistic expression. Concepts are far larger than ideas, but concepts, too, fit into a framework of themes. Themes are broader, transcending time and event, and are the key to understanding the things your mind is endeavoring to reveal through your works of art.

The Theme of Self Discovery

Themes are the outer edge of our creative universe. Discovering themes is a lifetime endeavor, and the purpose of art.

A good example of a theme is Marcel Duchamp's efforts to express motion. Duchamp was intrigued by motion throughout his life, but each of his works of art were the expression of individual ideas and the theme couldn't be determined by any one of them. He wasn't even aware of the theme until much later in life, but the struggle of his mind is apparent when looking back at the entirety of his work. From the Chocolate Grinder, to the Nude Descending a Staircase, to the Bicycle Wheel, to his movies with Man Ray, Duchamp was exploring concepts of motion. Those ideas were finally expressed in Étant donnés (Given: 1 The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas), and the entirety of the theme can be seen. (See, Marcel Ducahmp, The Afternoon Interviews, Section III.)

Likewise, we are unlikely to discover our own surrealist themes until we have enough work to look back upon. But they are there, and the only way to reveal them is by letting out the ideas and working the concepts. Themes are not related to time or event, but are solely a surrealist process. On a linear time scale, the opening may come last, and a primary example of the theme may come first. That order isn't relevant, however, because a theme can only be understood as a whole and not as a progression. Accordingly, developing one's themes is a passive act, and appreciating them requires letting go of ordinary concepts of time and linear progress. Driving this point home in poetic fashion, Duchamp insisted that the Étant donnés not be revealed to the public until after his death.

Putting It Into Practice

Although you can't do any magic trick to form an idea, there are many ways to increase your recognition of the ideas you have and making them more approachable, leading to better creation.

First, accept that your ideas are surreal. They come from deep in the mind, and are not the product of conscious thought. Indeed, conscious thought masks ideas, or restricts them. Ideas are impressions, and they should be left in that form as much as possible. The feeling of an idea is an impulse—not a specific.

Ideas have to struggle to come to the surface. Give yourself permission to pursue your ideas, and space for them to work their way up. Work indirectly. Take breaks that fit within the Three B factors and let your mind wander.

Don't resist being lost in thought—that's just letting the ideas work.
Be neutral about your ideas. Don't judge them. Don't consciously think them through. Consider each one as the gift that it is, and treat it accordingly by collecting it and letting the multiplicity of ideas accumulate in your mind so that you'll be better able to recognize a chance to express them when it presents itself.

As your ideas accumulate and interact, concepts will become apparent, and you will see more and more opportunities to capture images which express your ideas. Be careful, however, and don't pressure yourself with concepts which are too narrow. Think broadly, and let your mind guide you where you need to be. Let the process unfold naturally, and you'll be rewarded with discovering what story chose you.