Being immersed in a topic makes you ready to have the flash, the epiphany, the moment when thoughts collide and new ones emerge. It’s why I write about books: I see something I didn’t just from reading, and when I’m writing I pull something out of my subconscious that I didn’t even realize was there. From nothing comes something.
It’s a remarkable feeling, being in the zone, and the zone develops and broadens with time. You need the ideas, the knowledge, and the stimulation to form the primordial mass necessary. Then the ideas can start combining, extending, evolving. I suspect this kind of cycle applies to most fields of intellectual endeavor, and the more one practices being in this state of mind, the easier it comes.
In essence, it’s a virtuous cycle: creativity and discovery beget more creativity and discovery. It means paying attention to what others have said without being dominated by their ideas; it means being ready to challenge when you should and accept when you should. It means having a notebook or dictaphone, so you’re always ready when you’re in a car or on a train or walking your dog to capture the wisp before it floats away, maybe never to return in the exact same form.
The scaffolding is important—you need to know what the greats who preceded you thought. You’re not really ready for the higher stuff until you’ve laid the base; you don’t build a pyramid from the top down. You need your mind to be primed with the books you’ve read, the conversations you’ve had, the newspaper you saw this morning, and the problems you’ve considered. Once they’re all there, you unconsciously work on what you have, and connections form. And when the storm breaks, it’s a good idea to have buckets below, whether in the form of computers or dictaphones or pencils.
In fact, all this came to me in a torrent while I was working on a post about Mating. In a moment, I opened the OS X program DEVONthink and began typing. The first draft wasn’t as good as it could be, but the raw material I later shaped into a more coherent whole (some may debate the “coherent” aspect). The important part was writing before the inchoate thoughts evaporated; the feeling of capture is a rush, in a way somewhat similar to running or drugs, but subtly different too.
All this goes back to the writing itself, which is where some of these new ideas grow. I’ve heard people say that they don’t like to analyze what they read—but I discover more about what I read through writing about and reacting to it. Being able to explain why something is good and how it is good is a useful skill—as is its flipside. It’s part of grasping the principles underlying so many surface phenomena. And if you’re really going to get in the zone, you need to know the ground before you can fly through the air.