Writer (or Artist’s) Glut

Image from Scooter in the Sticks.

Image from Scooter in the Sticks.

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.

Big_waveIf 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.

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 patina’d 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 put life to their creative ideas.

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25 thoughts on “Writer (or Artist’s) Glut

  1. I used to keep two journals: one as a day-book (what happened when) and one as an idea/art journal for ideas to try in various media. I got out of the habit of both of these because I rarely referred to the first again and the other became too busy to carry around. Thanks to your blog, I won that No Excuses Journaling book, and resurrected the diary I used to use but now I’m overpasting the side opposite the day-book with my journal ideas! So now I can not only date a good idea in the index but keep track of when my last frost date was! Thanks Quinn! It’s helped clear the clutter out of both my bookshelf AND my brain!

    • I love her No Excuses Journal–and she’s writing another book, too. I, too, got tired of too many journals and have just one Commonplace Journal now. I’m fine with that.

  2. And for your next trick you are going to help me find a way to choose the focus of my major assignment for the weaving course I’m doing . . . I have seven ideas written down and need to choose one. I’m drowning in choices and each one iss worthy of following up but I have to start with just one!

    • Well, there are several ways to choose one. You can talk to the instructor to see if one is particularly apt for what is being taught. You can label them all with the emotions they bring up in you– fun, challenging, colorful, fast–and see if one of the title is appealing to you and do that one. One of my favorite ways to choose something that I feel stuck on is to give them a number, then roll dice. It becomes a random choosing and I am often surprised when the number comes up, and I have believed that I don’t care, that I suddenly care very much and know which one I’d rather do.

      • Those methods sure as hell beat a pin and a blindfold!
        I had thought about putting the details of each one on a separate card to see what comes up if I draw a card at random. I guess that’s a bit like the rolling of a dice and it may clarify what I don’t want to do when faced with it. Doing a PMI (Plus, Minus, Interesting) on each one was another consideration.

        I’ve talked to the teachers and part of the problem is the open brief we have . . . anything is possible as long as we show a development in creativity or skill based on the wide range of basic skills we have been taught. So many choices however I have a couple of weeks yet to finialise my decision..

        Thanks Quinn

  3. OMG, Quinn. This could not be more timely for me. I have hit a point where my tracks are criss-crossed, spiraled, rolled up, and going off the cliff at the same time. Where to go, what to do, what to do first? I love the visual of the being smashed to the studio floor and making bubbles!
    Yesterday, I went public with the mess on my blog – hoping that by sharing, I will enliven solutions. Your name came up in my comments and I came here just in time for this wonderful post.
    One thing I do manage to manage is the onslaught of ideas . . .
    One thing that is ALWAYS at hand for me is my iPad.
    I keep ideas in a journaling app on my iPad.
    The beauty is that I can type something, or hand write something, or shoot a photo of the thing triggering the idea – all in that app. I just wish they would add a voice recorder. I know some of the notebook apps have one, but they don’t have all the other things my favorite (NoteShelf) has. I can also search the ideas by keyword.

  4. I try to sketch my ideas in one or two sketchbooks I keep at hand. Sometimes, after I do my sketch, I forget about the idea. Then, a few months later, I look at the sketchbook and am amazed that I actually made whatever it was. Other times, I review what I’ve drawn to find ideas and inspiration. For me, recording the idea allows it to continue along its path in my creative subconscious (sorry, don’t mean to sound so pompous).

    • Claudia, I work much like you do. I have a digital recorder but I’m visual not auditory so it sits in a drawer. I find when I jot down a quick sketch and notes in my idea journal that it sticks more and makes sense when I go back and thumb through my ideas. I’m in the camp of too many ideas and only try to record the ones that seem to bubble to the top.

      • It sounds to me like you’ve thought out a plan that works for you. I am not much of an auditory person, either, but I am so klutzy if I wake up at night, that sometimes I leave myself a voicemail message, because I know how to do that while I’m half asleep. One time I made a mistake and left the great idea as the outgoing message, without knowing it. Back to paper and pencil!

  5. I don’t really have a system, and feel that I do lose some ideas. Love the IPpenix, I need to check it out as I am getting ready to get a new (ugh – another learning curve) smart phone

  6. By the way, I used to be careful about recording all my ideas. I don’t record any of them any more — ideas are infinitely available and aren’t all that different from one another. It’s not the idea, it’s what comes after. When I’m ready to do what comes next, or already engaged, ideas will still be around and that’s when they’re useful.

    • Wait another 10 years and you may feel a bit different. For me, there is glut and there is drought. During droughts, I like to review the glut ideas, it usually helps me get started.

      • The older I get, at least so far, the more confident I am that ideas are abundant. And although I use the common trope “my” ideas, that’s just a figure of speech; there’s no aspect of any idea that belongs to anyone.

  7. Ah, I see your problem. Your iPhone doesn’t have a gizzard. Apple designs many of its own chips and other components and does things their own way. Just locate your iPhone’s iPpendix; that’s where you’ll find all your ideas.

  8. I keep a special notebook (well two) for idea storage. One is sectioned in 4, so I have dedicated each to a topic (fiber, paint etc). Separate book for writing stuff. I feel that if I have to keep up digital files, I lose momentum, my brain seems to flow better via pen than keyboard.

    • I used to use a notebook, but with the index cards, which I date, I can arrange them my date or topic, as my mood suits me. For some reason, I love the whole card-shuffling, tarot-card approach to ideas.

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