This is a classic question that often gets directed at creative people like you and me. And there really isn’t a satisfying answer for it. At least, not a definitive, simple explanation that the person asking will be happy with. For me, it’s about allowing space for little connections or sparks to happen in my brain. Often a good idea will come to me when I am thinking about nothing at all – sometimes when I’m on a walk, or in the shower, or simply staring into space and daydreaming. One pattern I have noticed with myself is when I am beginning to really zero in on a particular project that excites me (most recently this was a comedy play I am writing). Often I will then spot something in the everyday, or a cool concept/thought enters my consciousness, and I instinctively try to connect it to the work I am currently focused on.
So, what could have been a random idea that simply makes me smile or intrigues me and ordinarily gets jotted down in a notebook and filed away, now instead seeks out connective tissue to the project I am working on. I see possibilities for how it could be woven into that project. In the case of the play, I recently had an idea for a cool way of displaying visuals on a screen on a stage, and I quickly realised that this could be something that might work for the play I’m finishing up.
If I was to step back and analyse this a bit more closely, it starts to become a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. In my subconscious there are things rumbling, and I was possibly inspired to think about theatrical staging because I was working on a play. Or its equally possible that this idea was sparked by something else I observed and I was able to draw a connection to the play, and to then find a way to fit it in creatively to the piece.
More broadly though, I think the more you allow yourself to simply daydream and give a project time to breathe & formulate, the more you find that these flights of fancy come to you and, by extension, are something that you can start attaching to your current project like little lego ideas.
Deadlines can be a great forcing function sometimes, but I personally run into trouble when I am pushing myself to write something very specific and am demanding my brain to cook up inventive ideas that simply aren’t accessible. It can be done of course. And I have done it for many projects. But generally I find that you end up going back to cliches, standard tropes and things you’ve done before. If I have the luxury of time, the more I allow myself to not demand a creative idea, but rather give myself leeway to let it take shape in my head before committing it to a page, the better and more interesting it can be,
Everyone has a different process, and many creative people like prompts to spark new ideas, and others simply let the muse take them. As for me, my ideas come from everywhere, usually where there is space to not overthink.