25 Famous Women on How They Get Their Best Ideas

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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. Whether it be a song, a novel, a poem, or even a comedy sketch, inspiration for these works of art can come from anywhere, and sometimes learning how others get their best ideas can help us get some of our own. Below, 25 famous women including Kacey Musgraves, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, and Michelle Zauner discuss the rituals that get their creative juices flowing — from people-watching on the subway to LSD to certain types of tea.

Zadie Smith

“Writing a novel is like doing a long-distance race, and writing an essay in the middle of one is like turning left off the route, finding a cafe, and paying close attention to something different. It’s a form of relief. Fiction is messier. Essay is, for me, an attempt at a kind of clarity. I have a very messy and chaotic mind, but when I’m writing an essay I find I can exert a bit more control over it.” — The Guardian, January 2018

Kacey Musgraves

“I went on a fun acid trip and ended up writing the song ‘Mother.’ I got really tripped out thinking about my mom — she actually texted when I was tripping — and it made me nostalgic and emotional. I started thinking about the cycle of moms and life. I just got super-heady about it, and I wrote it all down, and the next day I finished the song. Psychedelics can make you feel like a grain of sand. It’s good for your ego. I would obviously never want anyone to do anything that doesn’t suit them. But it inspired me, and it ended up being a mainstay inspiration on the album.” — Entertainment Weekly, April 2018

Miley Cyrus

“I have two notebooks that I take everywhere I go. One of them is filled with my morals, my values, my purpose, my potential, my capabilities, and my commitments — to others and to myself. I’m constantly writing things in there. Recently, I wrote down something very wise that I heard, which is related to your question. It was about how lyrics are one of the most resonant aspects of a song, and of why an audience connects with a song. It has to do with the words, and to challenge that is to say that there’s no difference between lightning and a lightning bug. But there’s a big difference. When I think about the sentiment behind ‘Nothing Else Matters,’ it aligns completely with my morals and my values.” — Interview, October 2021

Arlo Parks

“I think for me, particularly, I’m somebody who thrives off those moments of stillness. I get inspired through just sitting and being bored.” — The Ringer, March 2021

Michelle Zauner

“Persimmons are pretty present in a lot of Asian cultures, as gifts that you give to people. I had seen an image of these hanging persimmons that are dried during the winter and turned into sweet, dried fruit. And I really like the idea of this very bitter, hard fruit before it’s ripened — on display and slowly maturing and turning sweeter and letting its environment impact it. It felt like a very fitting metaphor for where I’ve come from.” — Rolling Stone, June 2021

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

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

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

Dontella 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arlo Parks

“I think for me, particularly, I’m somebody who thrives off those moments of stillness. I get inspired through just sitting and being bored.” - The Ringer, March 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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25 Famous Women on How They Get Their Best Ideas