Most creative people eventually hit that edge-of-the-horizon feeling that you’ve come to the crumbly brink of your creative world. The next idea doesn’t show up on time. Missed the train. The next train doesn’t show up at all. The track rolls itself up and over the edge of the horizon, leaving you standing alone, squinting as the hot sun burns out the edge of the sky and drops below your line of vision, sending your last hope of creativity into the twilight shadows. Night descends and leaves you standing without a shadow to rely on.
If you have never experienced this feeling, you probably aren’t trying hard enough to push your creativity. And before you crack your knuckles to leave me a blistering reply that you always have ideas, stop. This is about you. This post is about having too many ideas, too much of an idea, an idea that rolls in like a giant wave, flattening you against the floor of your studio, pressing you down until bubbles float from your nose and you can’t inhale. That kind of creative overflow.
It doesn’t happen to me often, but when it does, it is overwhelming. I’ve been creative long enough to know that when the dark side of the world appears, it signals the long roll into dawn. But crushed with too many ideas, I feel afraid–I’ll lose the most important one, I’ll develop the wrong one, I won’t be able to figure out the process of this brilliant idea over here. Now what?
The simplest idea I came up with is to save as many of those ideas as possible, get them into some form you can understand, and save them. You can figure out process later. You can figure out sequencing later. What you need to do now, before your short-term memory sneaks out the back door, is get some of the ideas caught.
My two favorite ideas for capturing represent the high tech and low tech spectrum. Index cards, my long-time companions and art supply, are the low tech side. I write down the bare bones idea. Just enough to balance the memory on the tee, so I can whack it across the sand trap and out of danger. No big discussion, no marketing, no audience. Just the rough idea is plenty. If you can’t reconstruct it later, it may not have been as wonderful as you first imagined.
The second idea is a voice-recording app on your smart phone. The one you want to install is the one you know how to work. My first one was incredibly easy to use, but I couldn’t figure out how to play it back. You can imagine how that little fault messed with my mind. Occasionally I still believe the best ideas of my life are wrapped around the gizzards of my iPhone. The new one works better. A twitching needle shows I’m recording, and it plays back exactly what I said. Simple.
If I wake up at night with an idea storm, I grab the phone and mutter into it. One time I pushed the wrong buttons and made my brilliant idea my voice mail message. Oh, well. I have also sent myself emails and used the sticky-note feature on my phone.
Don’t edit. Don’t worry. In fact, I generally don’t read or sort the ideas for several days after a brainstorm. I’m too critical. Or too immediate. I toss the index cards into a box and let them dry out. I’ll take a nice patinaed idea over a damp one, any day.
What’s your storage/retrieval system when your ideas back up and pour over you?
—Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who helps people who are stuck and overwhelmed. She specializes in change and re-invention.