If you’re lucky, once in your creative life you’ll have an idea so strong, so perfect, so energizing that you dive into the pool of manic creation and don’t emerge until it has become a Thing In This World Of Which You Are Proud.
Most other times, you’ll have ideas that excite you to varying levels that seem a lot less lustrous upon further exploration. Your notebooks, apps, drawers, floors, and brains are probably littered with the husks of half-started ideas that, after a bit of work, have become Things In A Netherworld Of Unused Potential And Guilt.
Could just be me.
I started working on a writing project this week. I’m excited about it. I haven’t felt that flash of excitement for an idea in a while. I listened to a podcast on the subway on Monday that planted the seed of an idea that by Wednesday had grown into a full-on “I gotta do this!” frenzy.
Then, almost immediately after I started trying to break the story, I found myself face-down in bed thinking “what a stupid idea”.
What I know from both my own work and from observation of writers I’ve coached, artist friends, and would-be founders is that there are stages of idea grief that the overwhelming percentage of creative people seem to go through when they start working a new project.
It’s actually not that interesting or fun.
It’s too hard.
The insidious thing about these stages is that they’re not considerate enough to happen one at a time, in order. They generally make a coordinated attack that then sends a would-be creator into a spiral where she experiences the correlative, more personalized stages of:
I’m stupid because I thought this was good.
I’m actually not that interesting or fun.
I’m not a good enough writer/artist/developer/person to pull it off.
We end up blaming ourselves for some perceived inability to do justice to the idea. But why?
We often fetishize the idea. It’s the manifestation of inspiration, delivered to us by the very Muses, flying on gossamer wings of what-could-be and alighting on our fingertips like a Blue Mountain Swallowtail to be marveled at but never disturbed lest it fly away to another, more delicate, more deserving finger.
An idea is the result of your human brain, itself a more magical machine than any Muse, being configured to take in a near infinitely-wide stream of information and smash it up against the gooey parts of the stuff that’s already in your brain and present you with boops and borps from its depths, holding them up at random as if to say “is this anything?” before diving back in to serve you up the next thing and the next and the next and the next until you see something you like and it can take a break or get a fish or honestly I’ve lost track of this metaphor but I think I was saying your brain is a dolphin.
And once you begin the work of turning the idea into something more than a quivering blob of datums sewn together like a patchwork monster in a mad scientist’s lab, you see the seams, and the imperfections, and the work that will need to be done to turn this spare-parts Pinocchio into a real boy.
If you see the idea for what it is — a lump of clay that only sorta looks like a thing that could be molded into a thing that someone might call art — then you can get to work on the molding, knowing that you’ll have to draw it out and make some mistakes and try a few things and even, heaven forfend, ball it back up and start over a time or two until you’ve turned it into something you’re proud to show someone.
But if you see the idea as that perfect blue butterfly, handed to you from the heavens in its perfect form, then not only will you be loathe to touch it, lest you fuck it up, but you will also be operating from a place of fear that if you even look at it too long or with too critical an eye, it will take wing and abandon you forever and no other ideas will ever be given to you because the Muses are vindictive (but don’t dare say that out loud because they are and they’ll hear it and they’ll punish you further).
It’s no coincidence that idea is the root word of ideal. The ideal thing is already perfect and needs no effort, and that’s how we are socialized to treat ideas. Ideas are actually useless without work, and we know that because we all have that friend or uncle or boss who claims to have had the idea for Facebook or Uber or Slapchop but somehow isn’t rich from it by magic.
Those of us who want to create have to see past the ideal to the work that must be done to achieve it, and embrace that work. We have to be willing to take that spark of inspiration and let it be the start, not the end. It’s the thing that gets us going, not the thing we’re aiming for. It set us on our journey but we’ve gotta find our way from there.
The thing at the end might not be a perfect representation of the vision at the start, but that’s okay, because the thing at the end is the thing that is real, that we created with our eyes and hands and brains, and the thing at the beginning is to be thanked for its service and celebrated, not mourned, in its passing.
And not for nothin’ — you never have to show anyone the thing until you feel like it’s A Thing That Is Good To Show Someone, which is really all anyone is aiming for in creating anything.
The idea isn’t something until we do the work to turn it into something. Which means that no part of it is perfect or untouchable or set in marble and it is ours to bend and shape and twist and chop and glue back together until we have something we can work with. And doing so doesn’t make us bad or hacky or unskilled or untalented. It makes us artisans and craftspeople and writers and inventors and founders and People Who Actually Get Things Done.
When you see the idea not as the flower but as the seed that must be planted into ground that must be tilled and fertilized and watered, then you can let yourself off the hook if it doesn’t grow and bear fruit. Recognizing that you’ve got a whole bag of seeds in the shed and a lot of space in the garden into which you can plant them is an act of self-love.
We think the difference between ourselves and our creative heroes is that they somehow discover Art, fully-formed, from the universe and must merely be the portal by which it enters our realm, but that’s simply not true. They do the work. And so can we.
Eventually, I remembered all of this, because as much as I know it, I still have to work to know it. Like… every single time. But I did, and I got off the bed, grabbed pen and paper, and plotted and replotted and replotted my story, following threads, hitting dead ends, throwing a lot away, and ultimately landing on a hook that felt great and on which I could build more and more until I thought “oh, yeah, this is pretty good and I am excited to write it.”
In those few hours, I probably went through the stages of idea grief in full a dozen times. But rather than let it stop me, rather than give up when I got to “I’m a terrible writer” for the ten trillionth time in my life, I pushed through, knowing that the only way to the other side was to keep working the idea until it became something.
And it did. And I feel good about it. Not good enough to not procrastinate working on it by writing this, of course. But good enough to get back after it a few minutes from now.
This entry is adapted from my (semi-) weekly writing newsletter Writers be Writing. But with more gifs.