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Home » A Writer’s Secrets to Catching Creative Ideas: Brad Herzog (Transcript)

A Writer’s Secrets to Catching Creative Ideas: Brad Herzog (Transcript)

Full text of author Brad Herzog’s talk: A writer’s secrets to catching creative ideas at TEDxMonterey conference. In this personal talk, the award-winning freelance writer shares some of his favorite stories and best kept secrets for pursuing and catching great ideas.

Notable quote from this talk:

“I wonder about everything, even the most mundane things.”

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Brad Herzog – Author

This is me: 1978 summer camp, Northern Wisconsin. I had a full head of hair. I had Buddy Holly glasses and I swear to you at the other end of that fishing line, I had a huge fish.

Unfortunately, there’s no photo to prove it. Nobody thought of taking a picture of the TAM fish. But that’s okay. Use your imagination. Think of all the possibilities at the other end of that line. And that’s essentially what I’m going to talk about today is creative possibilities.

As a writer, as the author of more than 30 books and scores of magazine articles, and I’ve been a freelance writer for more than two decades, I’m often asked about the writing process: Where do you write? When do you write? How do you write? Valid questions.

But that ignores half the battle when you’re trying to craft a literary masterpiece. And that is simply this: What the heck are you going to write about?

Good writing begins with a great idea, an idea so compelling that an editor or publisher can’t pass it up, an idea so compelling that a reader can’t pass it by. If you’re leafing through a magazine, you’re not stopping on a story because of the writing really, you’re stopping because of the idea, the subject matter.

It’s my job to catch those ideas when they come to me wherever they come from and turn them into something delicious. So I thought, that basically describes many of the roles that we play in our professional lives too, by the way, that we’re often tasked with coming up with a unique way of looking at things.

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So I thought before I take you on a little fishing expedition of my creative process, my stories through the years, in the hope that it would offer some insight into the spectrum of possibilities out there. So I’ll start this way.

Who remembers the movie Cast Away, starring Tom Hanks? Good movie, right. Great movie. You know, who wrote that movie? It wasn’t me; I have no idea. I have no idea who wrote that movie?

But it’s a great movie, and Tom Hanks is on a FedEx plane; it crashes into an ocean. He’s stranded on a deserted island; he’s trying to figure out a way to eat and survive. And eventually FedEx boxes start washing ashore, and finally starts opening some of them; he takes way too long; could have been a Swiss Army Knife and a satellite phone in one of them.

But finally, he starts opening, and he opens one and he pulls out a dress. And it’s made out of leather and a sort of mesh material at the bottom, and you’re thinking, well that’s useless.

But in the very next scene, you see that he’s taken that mesh material, and he’s created a fishing net out of it and he’s caught some fish, and he can eat for the first time on the island.

Basically what he did was he turned… he took the mundane and he turned it into the miraculous. And that’s often what I try to do.

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Everything in my daily existence, my mundane daily existence, can be fodder for a clever and creative idea. It’s just a matter of sort of tilting my head at the world a little bit, questioning everything, and what I like to call wondering out loud. I wonder about everything, even the most mundane things.

How many times have we tied our shoes in our lifetime? Ten thousand times, 20,000 times. One day I was tying my shoe and I looked down and I wondered: who designed the Nike swoosh? It’s one of the most iconic recognized logos in the world; somebody came up with it.

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So I looked into it and I wrote about a woman named Carolyn Davidson who was a graphic design student in Oregon in 1971. And Phil Knight approached her and asked her to come up with something, and she came up with that. You know, how much she was paid for that? $35! Yeah. She later got stock options; she’s fine going.

But that came from me time I sure one day. A short while after that I was wandering the grocery aisles. And I was… somehow I ended up in the baby food aisle. Actually I know why? I had babies and I looked and I wondered who is the Gerber baby? That adorable drawing has been on the jar of Gerber baby food since 1928.

Somebody posed for that drawing, and there have been rumors throughout the years: is it Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Bob Dole? It turns out it’s a woman named Ann Turner Cook who is now an 87 year-old self-published mystery writer in Tampa, Florida. She’ll always be the world’s most famous baby.

So what I did was I combined those two ideas, and I wrote a magazine article about the origins of some of our most iconic advertising images through the years: The Michelin Man; The Morton Salt Girl; the NBC Peacock, that sort of thing. And it all started with me tying my shoe and wandering the grocery aisles.

So anything can be fodder for an idea. Even more mundane things like that, even like eating, I was once tasked with writing a book from an educational publisher, writing a book for fifth graders. And the assignment was: make it 120 pages long and make it funny. That was the assignment. That’s not easy; 120 pages was about 24,000 words. 24,000 words of funny is not easy.

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