Have you ever had one of those days where you felt completely overwhelmed because you had too many ideas swimming around inside your head and you just didn’t know where to begin?
Perhaps you drank one too many Red Bulls that day, or maybe you went somewhere that really inspired you and suddenly all of these creative ideas started flooding your brain. Whatever the reason, when this happens it can quickly become overwhelming and even shut down your creative process.
The problem for many of of us is not that we can’t come up with any ideas, but the fact that we often have too many ideas, and we can’t decide on which one to work on next. I know that personally I’ve got notebook after notebook filled with ideas and random thoughts just waiting to be explored and developed.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not completely delusional and I realize that 95% of these ideas are probably complete crap, but it’s not always easy to tell the good stuff from the bad at first glance.
If you’ve been around the creative game long enough, you probably know that ideas (both good & bad) can be a bit fickle. One day you might be bursting with ideas and excitement. A few days later you might not be able to drag yourself out of bed or cobble two coherent sentences together. That’s just the way things go.
Now having said that, we’re not really here just to bitch and moan about the creative process and how it works (or often doesn’t work). I’m more interested in what we can do about this feast or famine process of coming up with good ideas and how we might be able to capture them before they disappear back into the creative ether.
So the first question is, how do we know which ideas are worth keeping and which ones are okay to let go?
One way that we can free up a creative logjam and to not find ourselves whimpering on the floor in the fetal position, is to start by finding a way to capture these ideas first and then sorting them out later. We need to find a way to get these ideas out of our head, not only so we won’t lose them, but also to get the creative juices flowing again.
Like anything else in life, there is a time for coming up with ideas and a time for expressing those ideas.
What we don’t want to do when we have all of these ideas bustling in our brain, is to try and sort them out or simply pick one and start working on it while ignoring the rest. This often goes against our creative instincts because it’s natural when we get a new idea to be excited and want to work on it as soon as possible. We don’t want to wait, we want to get started as soon as possible.
The problem is that whatever idea you’re excited about may or may not turn out to be a great project for you after all. So you want to keep your options open. You want to find a way to harvest and preserve these ideas before they inevitably disappear in a dark cloud of cynicism, fear, and self-doubt.
How exactly you go about doing this is up to you.
Personally when I’m trying to get my ideas down on paper as quickly as possible, I find the more technology I use the more likely I am to get distracted along the way. So when creative inspiration strikes, I leave the laptop at home, grab a notebook and pen, and head out the door. Usually I’ll find some quiet corner in the library, a park, or the local coffee shop and then just start writing down all of these fragments of ideas that have been floating around inside my head.
Later on after the initial excitement fades and the ideas have had time to marinate for a bit in my brain, I’ll go back through these jumbled notes and try to figure out what has possibilities and what should probably be packed away and never spoken of again.
I’ve discovered that writing down these ideas not only preserves them, but it also forces me to distill them into something that’s at least somewhat understandable. Even if it’s just a few scribbled thoughts on a notecard, writing an idea down can force you to think about it more deeply and help you clarify what exactly you are trying to say.
It doesn’t have to be words either.
If you’re a visual artist, you can make a quick sketch of your idea or take a photograph to preserve an idea for later. If you’re a writer, you can create a quick outline or mind map to help structure and organize your idea. Some creative artists I know like to make audio recordings or use voice recognition software to talk out their idea and then save it in a text file on their computer or tablet. The point is that it doesn’t really matter how you get your ideas out of your head, what’s important is that you find a way to define and then preserve these ideas so you can move on to the next step in the creative process.
What you don’t want to do is to stop the flow of ideas by trying to hold on to the ones you have.
Creativity has a lot to do with the interaction that happens between our inner and outer worlds.
Because these two parts of ourselves are constantly shifting and changing, it’s important that we are able to somehow capture these ideas and images as they come. When we wait, or try to sort these ideas out first in our head to see which ones are worthwhile, we can often lose them in the process.
The other benefit of getting these ideas out of our head and onto the paper is that it keeps the creative process flowing and initiates a type of mental momentum. One idea connects to another, alternative ideas appear, and suddenly something new is created.
It may start with an idea, but the real work and the real creative magic happens, when that idea starts to collide with all of your previous thoughts and experiences. At that point you start connecting, rearranging, and reassembling that idea into something entirely new.
Whether you choose to create a poem, a painting, or a photograph—creativity is about finding that connection between yourself and the people around you. It’s about finding your place in this world and leaving your mark. Sometimes the hardest part is not becoming impatient or completely overwhelmed in the process. Luckily, we don’t have to do everything, we just have to do the next thing.
What will your next thing be?
Writer, teacher, and head custodian of the Skinny Artist community. His book "Getting Creative: Developing Creative Habits that Work" is all about finding the time (and energy) to live a more creative life.