Writing is Hard: How to Corral All Those Wild Ideas

“Where do you get your ideas from?”
From the land where questions don’t end on a preposition.

What happens when talking about a cliche becomes itself a cliche? One of the boons and curses of being a creative being is the never-ending stream of ideas that you’re forced to maneuver through on a daily basis. I think about how something like “writer’s block” is a fraught idea in our discipline. Some people say it doesn’t exist. Others say it’s very real and something debilitating. My experience has shown that “writer’s block” isn’t a lack of ideas, but an actual blockage, a dam of morsels all trying to flow from your brain into your pen at the same time.

It feels empty because nothing is coming out, but that’s only because it is overfull, not dry. There are already too many metaphors in this post. Or are they similes? I always get those mixed up. Have some more.

When an artists says they’re “out of ideas,” maybe they’re just overwhelmed with snippets and bits and don’t know which one to take hold. They’re not trying to find a needle in a haystack, the haystack is made of needles. Ideas are everywhere and every single one has the shape of “This is THE ONE” at a certain angle. The FOMO (fear of missing out, apparently) is real when it comes to all our little darlings. But what is the best solution for capturing and retaining all that creative gold? Here’s the twist:

1. Stop Looking for “The One”

This is the most important piece of advice I can give you. Stop trying to find a perfect system to categorize your ideas. Stop working with the latest apps and web sites that promise to streamline your life and make you more productive. Productive is seductive but I’m trying to be reductive. I’m making this point so can make that rhyme. Get those ideas down when and where you can. There’s no right way to collect. Instead, work on making a habit of collating your ideas.

2. Collate and Consolidate

Take a few minutes (I do this during an online call, or listening to a podcast) gather your pieces of paper, notebooks, notes on your phone, etc. and put everything into a single document (preferably one that is backed up). Don’t think about what you’ve written down at this point. This is merely rote transcription. Call it “SNIPPETS OF GREATNESS” and look it over once a week. The ritual of cleaning up the physical manifestation of your stray thoughts may have the effect of clearing your mind of detritus as well.

3. Review and Reflect

The last part of your collation routine should be to look over the most recent notes you’ve added in relation to the ones you’ve previously saved. Are there themes? Are there patterns? Do you have a recurring dream of being a small bear in a large bowl of oatmeal? (No? Just me?) Reflect on the ideas you’re having and see if there is something that your mind has been working on in the background. Perhaps that weird snippet has turned into a new novel idea, or the beginning of a piece of flash fiction. Reflection is your friend.

4. Live with Abandon…ment

Give yourself permission to get rid of ideas. Let the old ones that never spur you further than the rhythm of their sentence fall by the wayside. Keep them in the file, but let them live on the last page as forgotten little gems that you come back to in a year and think “wow, what the heck was going on with me when I wrote that?” Think of this file as part of your writing journey, a way to test out language and ideas before fully committing to them with your time.

I think this works best in conjunction with a “Writing Journal” which I will talk more about in my next post. By making this a regular habit (say ten minutes each week) you can not only de-clutter a bit of your surroundings, but de-clutter the creative flow in your mind as well, preventing an idea jam from bringing your work to a screeching halt.

Unless you’re plagued with beavers. Then there’s no hope for any of us.

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