Where Ideas Come From

Image by tore_urnes via Flickr

I spoke today to a  class of 20 freshman journalism students at New Mexico State University about writing for a living. Their world is very different from mine, and will be throughout their careers, in one significant respect — unquestioned, socially approved, if not demanded, access to, if not addiction to, the Internet and its enormous pool of images, ideas, data and opinions.


It’s also the graywater of received wisdom, inflated ego, unfounded or salacious rumor. Can anything fresh, clean, valuable emerge as your life’s work if this remains your primary or exclusive source of intellectual or emotional fuel?

As I said then — Picasso and Gauguin didn’t zip on over to cubism.com or exploretahiti.org to envision and paint the images many still consider extraordinary in their vision, beauty and creativity. They created them.

I told this group of fresh-faced kids, one even a high-schooler visiting for the day, to do the unthinkable. Turn off the damn computer. For a day. For entire days.

I just spent five days in a desert home on 26,000 acres, nurtured and recharged by a silence punctuated only by the yowls of a mountain lion, the squeaks of skittering quail, the wind in the trees. We had no Internet or television and listened, briefly, to NPR on the radio before turning it off in favor of…silence.

Without withdrawal, reflection, isolation, creativity is, I believe impossible.

6 thoughts on “Where Ideas Come From

  1. bonniestone

    Woohoo! Thank you for this!

    In my early twenties I am among the many that are addicted to the internet…but before computers became mainstream in classrooms I read nearly every book I could get my hands on well before my peers. After reading, and there was nothing else around for me to read until another trip to the library was in order, I imagined and wrote. I still do that to this day. The internet rarely gives me much inspiration, rather it uses my time up rather nicely as continuous entertainment.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    Bonnie, thanks. I use the Net, obviously, but I really fear the pressure to think virtually will further demonize or devalue the individual and his/her vision.

  3. Jerry Lanson

    You bet Caitlin. And it becomes harder for all of us to do. My New Year’s resolution was this simple: Stay off all technology one day a month. Days like that are slower, richer, longer. We’ve become so desperately task oriented, so wedded to the instantaneous, so afraid we’ll miss something that I wonder whether we’ve really gained as much as we’ve lost in the wired age. Of course, all it takes is a little self-discipline, which I sorely lack, to pull away. I’m glad you got a break. Sounds like a cool trip.

    1. Caitlin Kelly

      Jerry, I discovered what rare and precious resources are a deep, unbroken silence and a lot of physical space; we’re already planning a return trip as I realized it offered what was, in effect, a retreat.

      I did not miss “news” — as we ate lunch at a bar with overhead TV’s after five days of this break I felt annoyed and overwhlemed realizing how
      much of my attention is eaten away by such trivia.

      I cannot see much great work coming out of such feverishly overtaxed brains, even if this feels “normal” to many people now.

  4. libtree09


    I find that ideas flow when the brain is in neutral, flowing freely in day dreams or while performing some routine task, a long drive or walk or listening to some music with random memories and thoughts coming and going. It is always surprising how a solution or fresh thought comes out of nothingness.

  5. Caitlin Kelly

    libtree, you see my point. Your brain needs to be somewhat in gear perhaps, but not racing at 60 mph nor endlessly skimming off or out whatever is useful. Too many days my brain feels like a whale’s baleen.

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