25 Famous Women on How They Get Their Best Ideas by Julie Ma

Read the original article on The Cut.

Doing the Most is a special series about ambition — how we define it, harness it, and conquer it.

It’s fascinating how mundane places, objects, and habits can inspire ideas that eventually shape our cultural landscape. Below, 25 famous women including J.K. Rowling, Toni Morrison, and Taylor Swift discuss the rituals that get their creative juices flowing—from people-watching on the subway to certain types of tea.

1) J.K. Rowling
“I try to start work before 9 a.m. My writing room is probably my favorite place in the world. It’s in the garden, about a minute’s walk from the house. There’s a central room where I work, a kettle, a sink, and a cupboard-sized bathroom. The radio is usually tuned to classical music, because I find human voices the most distracting when I’m working, although a background buzz, as in a café, is always comforting. I used to love writing in cafés and gave it up reluctantly, but part of the point of being alone in a crowd was being happily anonymous and free to people—watch, and when you’re the one being watched, you become too self-conscious to work.” — her website

2) Taylor Swift
“There are definitely moments when it’s like this cloud of an idea comes and just lands in front of your face, and you reach up and grab it. A lot of songwriting is things you learn, structure, and cultivating that skill, and knowing how to craft a song. But there are mystical, magical moments, inexplicable moments when an idea that is fully formed just pops into your head. And that’s the purest part of my job. It can get complicated on every other level, but the songwriting is still the same uncomplicated process it was when I was 12 years old writing songs in my room.” — Harper’s Bazaar, July 2018

3) Marie Kondo
“I drink multiple cups of tea a day… After I’ve accomplished a few things or start to feel tired, I’ll get up and make another cup. I probably have about 15 different kinds of tea in my cupboard at any given time. I usually have herb tea when I wake up in the morning, green tea with breakfast, black tea in the afternoon, and herb tea again in the evening.” — The Cut, March 2018

4) Maya Angelou
“I do still keep a hotel room in my hometown, and pay for it by the month. I go around 6:30 in the morning. I have a bedroom, with a bed, a table, and a bath. I have Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, and the Bible… I have all the paintings and any decoration taken out of the room. I ask the management and housekeeping not to enter the room, just in case I’ve thrown a piece of paper on the floor, I don’t want it discarded. About every two months I get a note slipped under the door: ‘Dear Ms. Angelou, please let us change the linen. We think it may be moldy!’ But I’ve never slept there, I’m usually out of there by 2. And then I go home and I read what I’ve written that morning, and I try to edit then. Clean it up. And that’s how I write books!” — The Daily Beast, April 2013

5) Whitney Wolfe Herd
“I really try to ask myself the question of nine. Will this matter in nine minutes, nine hours, nine days, nine weeks, nine months, or nine years? If it will truly matter for all of those, pay attention to it. If it isn’t going to matter in nine minutes, nine hours, or nine days from now, you need to not pay attention to it. I think it’s extremely easy to become distracted by noise, by things that might upset us or set us off track.” — Entrepreneur, June 2017

6) Donatella Versace
“Well, my muse changes all the time because I think every designer is a bit of a muse for themselves in a way—they just don’t want to say it… But as a designer, you always take facets of different people and you mix them together with your own thoughts and information and creativity and passion—because I think fashion has a lot to do with passion—and that’s where you get your inspiration.” — Interview, November 2011

7) Reese Witherspoon
“I think incubating the idea, then writing a business plan are really important. If you’re a creative, find a business person. If you’re a business person, find a creative. It’s the blend of the two that creates success, and the two of you will sort of police each other and beat [the idea] out pragmatically. I started as the creative and have now become more of the business person, and my business partner has become more of the creative.” — Man Repeller, December 2017

8) Hannah Gadsby
“I generally take all the things that have been preoccupying my thoughts and there’s usually more than I can poke a stick at… I just sort of start writing them down and seeing how they connect. But really, my stand-up shows get written—I do a fair bit of mucking about on the page, but they really are written onstage. An audience is the best editor, for comedy.” — Seattle Pi, June 2019

9) Amy Poehler
“What I have discovered is this: You can’t do it alone. As you navigate through the rest of your life, be open to collaboration. Other people and other people’s ideas are often better than your own. Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.” — Harvard Class Day Speech, May 2011

10) Audrey Gelman
“We do a lot of work and concepting on Pinterest. I can just get lost in a Pinterest hole and not be heard from for hours. Also our members, honestly—we have such a dynamic, rich, interesting group of women who are a part of the Wing. Having a coffee with a member and picking their brain about things they want to see us do, and then going back to the office to figure out what of those things is possible and what would be the steps we’d need to take to do it? That’s a big, ripe, fertile area of inspiration for me. I respond to every email from members and spend a lot of time in face-to-face interactions with them.” — The Cut, April 2019

11) Erykah Badu
“Music is what brings it out of me. I’ve never written lyrics without music—that would be poetry. It’s the music first, then I hum in a rhythmic, syncopated way. The next part is listening to it and decoding what I’m saying. It’s almost like a lump of clay and carving away at it, revealing what’s under it.” — Vulture, March 2010

12) Mindy Kaling
“I will never let myself now sit in front of a blank screen. I’ll always sit down with an idea or something to say. Sometimes, I’m scrambling to open it so I can get an idea down, because I hate the blank page so much.” — Parade, June 2019

13) Kate McKinnon
“So many YouTube videos. Me, alone in my office, talking back to YouTube videos … I like to devise axioms and notice patterns of what works and what doesn’t so I can codify those into little rules I can use. If someone has a vocal tic or an accent, it’s so much easier to hook into something. It always starts with the way they talk, and then you add the layer of their energy.” — Glamour, August 2018

14) Carine Roitfeld
“Lots of people, they feel anxious because they think I’m judging them. No! I’m just looking, observing what they’re wearing, what they’re doing, because my inspiration comes from the street, from other people. You know, I’m just curious and I have a good sense of observation. And I can immediately transform this observation into ideas for fashion. That’s always how I work. I’m not going to books, I’m not going to reference a vintage shop. I’m not going to the past. I’m most inspired by what’s happening around me.” — The Cut, June 2019

15) Ilana Glazer
On weed: “I guess it’s a hit here and there for writing. Usually 80 percent of the day I’m straight, and then by the end of the day I could use a ‘mind plane change.’ I’ll take a little hit after lunch or something out the window of this midtown editing office… I go up and I’m like ‘Oh my god!’ and then I come down and I’m like ‘Ah! I just had an experience, and now I can focus again and be still in this process that we have.’ That’s how it helps me in writing and editing.” — The Verge, April 2016

16) Dolly Parton
“My favorite thing, if I have the time, is to take a couple weeks and take off and go somewhere to just write songs. That’s not as apt to happen these days as it was in the past, but I can write songs anywhere. I always keep a notepad by my bed at night and a tape recorder. I’ve always got a notepad everywhere. I do my best thinking when I’m traveling. I can write anywhere, and I never know when a song is gonna hit me. I write a little bit of something every day. Either an idea or a title, a few lines. If I’m lucky, I can write a few songs in a week.” — Rookie, November 2017

17) Toni Morrison
“I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come… Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.” ― The Paris Review, 1993

18) Kristen Wiig
“Don’t try to make jokes. You shouldn’t try to be funny. Well, you shouldn’t try try. Effortless comedy is what you want to go for… With the Groundlings, I learned how to collaborate, how to give and take. It’s important to set other people up and make them look good. I learned what works by laughing at someone else’s character and being like, ‘Why is that funny to me?’” — Esquire, October 2017

19) Jenny Han
“I still do my writing retreats, which I’ve been doing my whole writing career. I rent a house and gather a bunch of writer friends together and go work. It’s to get outside of my own everyday routine and immerse myself in the work.” — Refinery29, April 2019

20) Grace Coddington
“I think you have to live a little bit more in the moment and appreciate and see. It is what I’ve always done in my life—just look at where I am. That’s why I love going on the subway in the morning. There are so many wonderful people on the subway. I’m often sad that I only live three stops away from the office in Times Square, because I’m usually just working out who that crazy person is in the corner when I have to get off.” — Interview, November 2012

21) Judy Blume
“Ideas seem to come from everywhere—my life, everything I see, hear, and read, and most of all, from my imagination. I have a LOT of imagination… I keep a notebook and jot down everything that comes to mind about characters and places and anything else. That notebook is my security blanket. That way I never feel alone with a blank page or a blank screen… Observe. Make notes. Listen carefully. Listen to how people talk to one another. A good writer is always a people-watcher.” — Scholastic

22) Phoebe Waller-Bridge
“[At the end of Fleabag] I was like, ‘God, it’s been amazing, but I’m never going to have another idea,’ and then I went to sleep. I woke up and I had this idea for this movie in my head… I’ll be in the shower and suddenly it’ll be like, ‘I should go and write that down.’ It’s very strange, which probably means it’s going to be awful.” — Deadline, June 2019

23) Shonda Rhimes
“I never put pen to paper to write the script or book or anything until I really know what I’m going to write. And then the writing is quick: Sometimes it can take a year of me thinking, and I can then write a script in three days. ‘It’s never, I took six months to write this script, or I took six months to write this book.’ It’s all happening inside my brain… There’s a moment when I can’t not talk about it anymore. I can’t not write about it anymore. I’m sitting in story meetings for other things, thinking, why am I talking about this when I should be talking about that. My brain is just excited to tell that story.” – Thrive Global, November 2017

24) Annie Leibovitz
“I do my homework. When I was preparing to photograph Carla Bruni, the wife of Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, in the Élysée Palace, I looked at pictures of the palace. I looked at pictures of other people who had lived in the palace. Pictures of couples in love. Pictures that other photographers had taken of Bruni. She had been photographed many times before. I thought Helmut Newton had seen something in her that other photographers hadn’t. I knew she was a popular musician, and I listened to her music.” — Artspace, January 2019

25) Elizabeth Gilbert
“My life is divided into times when I’m actively writing a book and times when I’m not. I’m only actively writing a book once every three or four years, and when I am, my day is very simple. I get up at 4:30 or 5 a.m. and I write nonstop until midmorning. Then I spend the rest of the day staring at a wall because my brain is like a fried egg. I’ll have an early dinner and an early bedtime, by 7 or 8 p.m., and I’ll do it again the next day and the next until the book’s finished. It’s a very militaristic thing, the early hours. But I really want to be uninterrupted and the world doesn’t wake up in a way that bothers you till about 9 a.m. That’s when the phone starts ringing, emails and texts start coming in. If you can get a four-hour jump on that, it’s incredible how productive that time is.” — The Cut, May 2019

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