The Gateways to Where Ideas Are Born
For 15+ years, I’ve contributed weekly editorial cartoons at Charleston City Paper. Week-after-week, a new strip, a new opinion, a new punchline. As such, one of the most common questions I hear is “Where do you get your ideas every week?” The query almost suggests there’s some mythical garden where ideas bloom on vines, ripe for the picking. And oddly enough, that might aptly describe the reality of the situation; some ideas require cultivation and care, while others sprout up fully formed. If you’re having difficulty developing ideas, the real question is “How do you get to where you get your ideas every week?”
Focus on Something Else
There’s the old adage that “A watched pot never boils.” And while I’ve made enough ramen noodles to know that a pot boils regardless of its audience, that saying often applies to ideas. Often that “A-ha!” moment comes when you’re not looking for it. The more you try to force an idea into fruition, sometimes it’s all the less likely to actually bloom. If a brainstorming session is coming up empty, move on to something else. Shift your focus to another project, catch up on some reading, do some mindless doodling. Even while not dedicated fully to the development of the idea, your brain will continue to churn it in the background. That lightbulb will come on when things start to take shape.
Along those same lines, instead of concentrating solely on coming up with ideas, get somewhere by yourself. Take a shower, or hop in the car to run some errands. Like a sensory-deprivation tank, that time alone under the rushing water or listening to music can free the mind to wander or loosen up deeply-rooted ideas. I’ve had countless ideas swim to the surface while in the shower or on my daily commute, free from the distraction of a screen or other people.
Just Start Doing
If all else fails, just start on the project. After 15+ years, that blank page is still a daunting proposition every week. Overcome the blank page by just starting. Type some gobbledygook, just start sketching a character, or line the borders of the first panel. There have been weeks where I’ve sat down at the drawing board with an idea that’s at best half-baked. But by laying out the panels or penciling an initial figure or caricature gets the ball rolling, and the rest of the idea starts to show itself.
15+ years of ideas—enough good ones to win awards and recognition several years running—and the uncertain intimidation of the blank page and Imposter Syndrome are still commonplace. So if you’re struggling with an empty tank, don’t beat yourself up. Take a breath, and consider the methods that have helped me keep creating week-after-week.
Editor, Artist, Letterer, Colorist Steve is the long-running cartoonist at the Charleston, SC alt-weekly Charleston City Paper, where he skewers politicians and criminals (and criminal politicians) alike with editorial cartoons and police blotter illustrations every issue. Steve was best known his indie comic book (and subsequent webcomic) BOONDOGGLE