Idea Man


Sometimes, as a creative-type person, you are going to realize that you have no ideas.

Absolutely none.

And, when you’re starting out, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’ve run out. You’ve tapped your well. You’ve emptied yourself, and now you’ve got nothing, and now you’re doomed to be a creative zombie, either shuffling forward for eternity making the same content over and over or sitting in place staring at the empty barrel you used to scrape for ideas.

This is not generally, in my experience, how it works. I think it’s important to point this out because it seems like maybe a lot of people think that’s how it works, and it seems to become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. So: Stop it.

You’re not out of ideas forever. Ideas are the poop of the engaged mind. You’re just digesting things. The poop will happen later. And, when it does, it will be glorious. The low-flow toilets of your audience’s minds will be clogged, and you will – uh, single-handedly drum up tons of business demand for mental plumbers and Drano (DVD box sets and single malt scotch, respectively).

Continuing this metaphor, films and television series about creative people are essentially scat porn: The audience can enjoy the process without having to smell it. The portrayal of creative work is usually one where the artist just looking for one good idea and, having found that idea through some contrived series of events, the proceed to make their thing. Apparently art is really easy if you have an idea, which certainly raises the question of why most people are kind of bad at it but okay let’s not worry about that.

So: Basically everything I just said is ridiculous bullshit, but that’s how it goes when you don’t have any ideas. You write one thing, and some obscure connection suggests itself. You follow it, you pull the thread, until you get somewhere else. And so on, and so forth, until you find somewhere new and interesting. The reason why writer’s block happens is because we’ve been told that ideas are where creativity starts. Ideas are not a prerequisite for creation. Ideas are the skeleton of a piece, and though sometimes making a skeleton, layering organs and muscles on top, and then coating it with skin is a good way to make a man, sometimes you just gotta start with a finger and work your way out; to the palm; to the wrist; to the arm; to the chest; to the heart.

Don’t wait for ideas. Don’t play the lottery. Don’t hold out for a hero, don’t stall until your ship comes in. Grab hold of whatever you can and make it manifest however you can, and navigate your way by the lay of the land you’ve made so far.

Did you think an idea was something so small you could contain it?

Would any such idea, small and simple and succinct and easy to say, be worth the energy that art demands?

I don’t think so.

  1. For some people, the idea generation part happens externally – this is the source of the “just write something, even if it’s crap, and keep writing until you get somewhere” advice that’s part of the gospel of writing these days. For others, though, it’s internal – they go about their business, letting the wheels turn, until suddenly it all springs forth in something very close to a finished format.

    I’m one of the latter group – the “just keep writing” advice is exactly wrong for me. My very rough estimate is that about 20% of the writers I know are internal processors. The “just keep writing” advice is right for most writers (or, I assume, other creative types), but a source of great frustration for the few of us who get tired of being told that we’re doing it wrong.

    • I don’t think it’s strictly one or the other though. I think that you can wait for an idea to pop up, which is the internal process you’re talking about, but I don’t think an idea is a necessary thing to start with in order to make something that is good. The reason why it feels that way to you, I think, is because your writing is trying to solve a specific problem, tell a specific story, impart a specific piece of information, etc, so you need to know where you’re going in order to achieve that. If you were writing something more exploratory rather than purpose-driven, I think you might find the other process more amenable.

      • Ack! There’s almost nothing worse you could say to a memoirist. Knowing what you want to say and then writing till you get there is a cardinal sin.

        No, it’s more like there are all these scenes and moments churning around in my brain. And if I start to try to write them while they’re churning, the writing will be terrible and I will also have turned myself off of writing that part. Instead, I just have to let them churn and churn until suddenly they all line up and I can see what the throughline is (this part involves a lot of time in the bathtub), and some parts will fall away and others will move up into the front, and *then* I can write it. for another writer, they might have to write their way through to that epiphany, but I’ve tried that and it’s never worked for me, at least not so far.

        I am, of course, taking the chance that the moment might happen when I’m not present enough to get it down on paper – and that has happened, and it’s the weakness of this strategy. But nothing else works at all, so I’m stuck with it, I guess.

      • I’m not saying you’re working backwards from a pre-determined destination in terms of the flow of the piece, just that you know approximately what the piece is about. That is, you know what the topic is, you just don’t know what the treatment or message of that topic will be. That necessitates a specific rather than exploratory solution, and specific solutions demand a different process.

        I don’t think one style of writing is better than another, but I think sometimes being forced from one to the other can be super valuable. For instance, the ~1000 word posts I put up on Mondays tend to be stressful for me because they’re often built around an Idea, and Ideas on deadlines can be really really hard — whereas these less formal posts are relatively easier and I think often just as good. However, there are certain topics I explore in the longer and more structured posts which an exploratory method would probably not handle well.

        I still tend to find new branches of exploration, though, even after I have An Idea. So it’s not really an either-or thing as much as a spectrum.

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