Ideas are the foundation of everything, aren’t they? They’re the foundation of the books you read. The blog posts you write. The brands you love. The Broadway shows you attend. The meal you’re making for dinner. The place you’re eating brunch. The app you can’t live without. The website that cracks you up.

Each started with a single idea, which kept expanding and expanding.

I’m curious how people come up with their ideas—particularly their best ideas. What does their process look like? What techniques and tools, if any, do they use? Is their process like a habit or more spontaneous? Do they consult others or go it alone?

Today, I’m sharing insights from three different authors on how they get their best ideas. I’ve already posed this question to a variety of writers, and you can read their excellent responses here and here.

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Deborah Serani, PsyD, a psychologist, author of three books on depression, and professor at Adelphi University.

How do I get my best ideas? They come in many ways. Mostly for me, they arrive when I allow my mind to be still. I’m a psychoanalyst, so it’s easy for me to find a level of consciousness that is quiet, yet flowing with thoughts and ideas. My greatest creative moments occur when I’m in this kind of reverie, where I can grasp threads that feel valuable to my work. This happens often when I’m going to sleep, at rest in a truly relaxed state, or even in the shower.

Sometimes I can deepen my creative flow by listening to music, with jazz and classical being my go-to choices. For me, this kind of music stirs so much inside me that bubbles to the surface of my mind. I’m able to make note of it on paper so I use it creatively.

I also find that reading poetry broadens my use of language. The rhythm, prose and texture of some of my favorite authors helps me think about words, and how powerful they can be when used in precise and delicate ways.

I adore poet Elizabeth Bishop: I often read and re-read her collection which is HUGE. I also love Emily Dickinson, Lord Byron and believe it or not, Edgar Allan Poe. His poetry and prose rock! I have these little paperbacks which are worn and dog-eared, but they are like old friends and are comforting to read.

Kathleen Smith, Ph.D, author of The Fangirl Life: A Guide to All the Feels and Learning How to Deal and founder of the website FangirlTherapy.com

When I’m generating ideas for writing, I need to be on the go. Sitting still at a desk typically doesn’t work for me, so I do a lot of brainstorming while commuting public transportation or traveling. I keep a little notebook and scribble down ideas while I’m riding on the subway or taking a train ride to visit a friend. There’s something about being on a train that just opens up the mind and makes you feel like anything could happen.

Once I have the glimmer of an idea, I usually test it out as a conversation with friends. Sometimes it’s via text, and sometimes it’s in person. If I find myself engaged in the conversation or defending certain ideas, then it’s usually worth pursuing. I jot down key arguments or questions that emerged during that conversation, and then I use those as a starting point for expanding a piece.

This helps make the writing process feel as though I’m talking with my friends. I’m starting in the middle of a conversation, rather than experiencing the anxiety that comes when you stare at a blank page and a blinking cursor.

Sheri Van Dijk, MSW, a therapist specializing in using dialectical behavior therapy with people with severe mental health problems. She is the author of seven books and speaks internationally. 

Actually, I mainly get my best ideas from my clients! Sometimes I get compliments on my ability to write about dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills in a way that makes them more understandable and usable; I’ve always responded to this feedback with the response that I basically write the conversations I have with my clients.

While many of the DBT skills may seem to be fairly simple at first glance, putting them into practice can be quite difficult, so I often have to do a lot of coaching with my clients.

I draw on my own experience in putting the skills into practice (i.e., the problems I’ve had myself, and how I’ve worked on these problems), as well as ideas that other clients have given me. I learn from these experiences about how to best coach my clients to use skills, and these are the ideas that then end up in my books or articles.

Along these same lines, I sometimes get ideas for pieces from questions people have about skills. I remember not too long ago Margarita and I worked on an article together about Radical Acceptance—an idea I suggested because of difficulties readers had understanding this skill and the nuances of it (mainly that accepting doesn’t mean approving of, being OK with, or liking something!).

So I guess the main theme as to where my ideas come from overall is, what seems to be needed the most? A workbook for bipolar disorder and other mental health problems, because people need direction regarding using skills to help them live healthier with this illness; books for teens to help them manage emotions more effectively and develop healthier, more satisfying relationships because of the many teens with difficulties in these areas and the problems we hear about constantly with bullying; and a book for clinicians to help make DBT more accessible and understandable, so that more clients will have access to this wonderfully helpful treatment.

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How do you get your best ideas? What does your process look like? What tools or techniques do you use? 

Photo by Janko Ferlic.