Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

When Harlan Ellison was asked “Where do you get your ideas from?” he famously answered “Schenectady.” Ellison was commenting on the absurdity of pinning down a process as ephemeral, multi-dimensional and just plain murky as the origin of an idea. However, if the question had been modified to exclude the final word from the sentence then Ellison’s answer would work for me.

Author by Mohawk River in Schenectady

I’ve lived in Schenectady. It’s an industrial city on the Mohawk River in Upstate New York. It’s famous for being the site of the Schenectady Massacre of 1690, where French and Native American forces attacked the fledgling settlement at midnight, burning it to the ground and slaying sixty men, women and children who were still in their bedclothes, and also for being the place where Thomas Edison chose to headquarter his fledgling General Electric Company. Schenectady is built on land that was once the territory of the Mohawk nation, and its name comes from the Mohawk phrase, “over the pine plains.”

I wrote a great chunk of Watcher of the Dead within the city’s limits.  And as the answer to the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” is always “Where I was physically located at that moment the idea occurred to me,” then my ideas are officially from Schenectady.

Author in woods in Schenectady

Here’s a few things I know about ideas. Ideas happen when your fingers are moving across the keyboard. They don’t like a cold start. Trying to force an idea is like willing yourself to fall sleep: the more self aware you become of your goal, the more difficult it is to achieve. If you’re stuck, the best thing to do is ask yourself a question beginning with the words, “What if”. What if character X gets pushed off the cliff? How far is the fall? Is there sand, rock or water below? If X dies is there someone else who can fulfill his task? This process starts the ball rolling, keeps you thinking…which leads to ideas.

How you fuel the process of idea generation is simple: you live, you pay attention. Then, paradoxically, you don’t pay attention. This step is related to the law of “the pot never boils while you’re watching it.” You send your mind out of the room, so to speak, let the stock simmer out of sight.

Schenectady’s a pretty good place to do that. There are woods, creeks, waterfalls, some of the oldest buildings in the US: lots of places to send your mind out of the room. You could be anywhere though. As long as you have somewhere to walk, a desk, a pen, a computer, and as long as you keep the ball rolling, the ideas will come to you.