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Confessions of an Idea Hoarder

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Imagine running out of ideas for your writing. It’s the stuff of nightmares. You sit down at your computer or pick up your pen, ready to leap into a new story, and there’s…nothing. The well has run dry. The spark has been extinguished. The horror, the horror!

I have plenty of challenges when it comes to my own writing, but running out of ideas isn’t one of them. My problem is usually the opposite. I have plenty of ideas. My idea cup overfloweth. Every day I get at least one new idea, if not more. I have ideas tucked into notebooks, written on the backs of phone bills, jotted quickly into Evernote or a draft text. I have ideas that I never got around to writing down, but they’re assembled in the central idea-hub of my brain, hoping to be plucked from the crowd and turned into something amazing.

It doesn’t seem like much of a problem, right? Isn’t it better to have too many ideas instead of none?

Generally, yes. But I hoard my ideas. That idea-hub in my brain? It’s jam-packed, and I’m not sure how much more I can cram in there. My ideas are spilling out all over the place. If I’m not careful, I’ll trip over a pile of ideas while trying to do something important, like cross the street or remember my sister’s phone number.

I don’t want to throw any of my ideas out—what if I lose my best idea ever? What if I need that idea again someday, when the ideas flow more slowly?

At the same time, I’d like to get rid of some of those ideas that—let’s face it—are just not going to work out. I’d like to free up some of my brain to focus on the ideas that I can craft into good stories.

Spring seems like a good time to give my idea-hub a thorough cleaning. I have decided to take the same approach I would take to spring-cleaning my closet: take everything and lay it all out to have a good look, and then divide all the things into four piles (or files, in this case): KEEP, REPURPOSE, DONATE, or TOSS.

Want to join me? Here’s how you can think about what goes in these piles:

  • KEEP: This pile is for those bright, precious, and meaningful ideas that you know will make great stories some day. They have longevity, impact, and potential. Keep these ideas in a file or notebook close at hand. Finish whatever it is that’s keeping you from pouncing on any one of them right now, or make the time to pick one and write it into being. Make a promise to yourself that you will focus on these beautiful ideas, one at a time.
  • REPURPOSE: You might come across ideas that area really not very good, but, when you take a closer look, you will see they have the kernel of something usable. It could be a word, a phrase, or a feeling it evokes—whatever it is, you can use that tidbit. You might also be able to re-work the idea into a different piece, like a poem instead of a novel, or a blog post or a drabble. Stash these ideas away, and see if you can work it into another piece later.
  • DONATE: Could someone else use that idea you don’t care for anymore? Give it away! Share it as a prompt on social media. Use it as an exercise for your writing group. Suggest it as an option for a fellow writer’s WIP. Be a good literary citizen, and support your fellow writers.
  • TOSS: Even the best ideas lose their luster over time. Maybe they are so dated that they are no longer workable. Maybe you came up with these ideas at a different time in your life, and now they make you cringe. You really don’t want your grand-kids to find these ideas in a dusty box in the attic after you are gone. So get rid of them. Delete, erase, bury, rub out, strike-through, burn. Make a ritual out of it, if you like, giving a small prayer of gratitude to your muse for giving you that whacked-out idea in the first place. And then get back to those good ideas.

Hopefully these tips will help you clear out some idea-junk, so you can focus on the ideas you can really work with.

Have fun with your spring cleaning—and your writing!

Maria

Photo by Glen Noble on Unsplash

Filtering out the no(i)se

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Did you know that you can always see your nose?

Made you look! Or rather, made you notice.

Your nose is always smack-dab in the middle of your field of vision, but your brain chooses to ignore it most of the time. (You can learn about the phenomenon here.) That’s because it’s expected sensory information. Your brain doesn’t need to register your nose (unless something’s going on with it, like maybe there’s a butterfly perched on it) so your brain filters it out in order to be more efficient. After all, your brain can’t be expected to actively report on absolutely everything it comes across all the time. And you don’t want it to. You want your brain to clue you in to the important stuff, like the sign-post you’re about to walk into, the twenty-dollar bill lying on the sidewalk, or the fact that your duck a l’orange is burning to a crisp.

This ability–called unconscious selective attention–means your brain can safely ignore unnecessary inputs so it can handle the important stuff.

(Interested in this concept? Read more here. The invisible gorilla experiment is also pretty cool.)

Unconscious selective attention can help you focus on your writing efforts. Most writers need quiet, calm spaces in which to work, and those spaces are increasingly hard to come by. But this is when your brain gives you a helping hand. You’ll be able to edit out unimportant background noises that might be preventing you from concentrating, like the chatter in your local coffee-shop or the lawnmower outside your window. It also means you aren’t distracted by the colour of the rug, or the hum of the HVAC system, or the fact that you’re wearing slippers.

But you might want to think differently about selective attention in your writing, particularly if you’re writing fiction. This is one place where you want to consciously select the information your reader should notice. It’s your job to point out that background information when it will enhance your writing.

When does this make sense?

  • When you want to make a description of your setting richer. What kinds of sounds percolate through the scene? Is there a unique quality to the light, or a scent to the air? Bring some of that sensory flavour to the foreground.
  • When you want to build suspense. A ticking clock. The lack of birdsong. A hum in the air. The sun slowly going down. Adding these barely noticeable layers to your scene will give your readers a sense that something is about to happen.
  • When you want to slow the pace down. Is your character taking a moment to reflect on a decision or remember the past? Take note of the small gestures and non-critical elements to give the scene a meditative quality.

Take a moment to notice the things that your brain is helping you ignore for efficiency’s sake.

Maria

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash.

Cookin’ with gas

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Considering the “four burners” theory and the trade-offs of success

James Clear, a writer and thought-leader on human behaviour and productivity, recently wrote about the “four burners” theory. This theory proposes that your life is made up of four quadrants, like four burners on a stove. Those four quadrants are family, friends, health, and work.

The four burners theory maintains that if you want to be successful, you can’t have all four burners going at once. You have to cut one off. Further, if you want to be even more successful, you’ll have to cut off two.

Clear confesses that, at first, he wanted to find workarounds, so he could keep all four burners going and still be successful. For example, combining burners—such as friends and health, or health and work—but he eventually comes to terms with what the theory is telling him about choice:

“Essentially, we are forced to choose. Would you rather live a life that is unbalanced, but high-performing in a certain area? Or would you rather live a life that is balanced, but never maximizes your potential in a given quadrant?”

This article made sense to me, and got me thinking about issues around work-life balance—especially for creative types—and the choices we all have to make about what aspects of our life we need to focus on.

Work-life balance shouldn’t be the goal.

We are not bottomless wells of energy. We can only spend so much of our attention and energy and focus on at a time, and can’t keep up all aspects of our life on “full gas.” That way lies stress, resentment, and eventually burnout. But as Clear notes, aiming for balance might mean that you aren’t excelling in any one area.

Ideally, we should strive to put the right amount of energy towards the specific quadrants of our lives where we want to excel, when it makes sense—but it can’t happen all the time. You can’t give everything equal power—sometimes, certain parts of your life will take priority, and you will have to focus on them with as much attention as needed, for as long as needed.

Bill Howatt, chief research and development officer of workforce productivity at Morneau Shepell maintains that there is no work-life balance. For Howatt, it’s all about blending your time. He says, “Most of us don’t live in two separate worlds where at work we focus only on work and at home we focus only on home.”

This blending concept resonated with me. After all, as much as I wind up working from home in evenings and on weekends, I am often “homing from work” during business hours. There is no clear and definite separation, thanks to technology and the changing expectations of the workplace.

Instead of finding some elusive sense of balance, Howatt recommends using the tools of awareness, accountability, and action to find the perfect blend across all the burners or quadrants of your life.

The perfect blend comes down to choice.

When I first read Clear’s article, I found myself hung up on the fact that the four burners model doesn’t accurately represent my life.

As someone who currently works full-time, runs a few small businesses, writes in the wee hours, and pursues a variety of other projects and initiatives, I find the “work” label too simplistic.

What’s more, I also volunteer. Is that work? Friends? Health?

Some people get great meaning and fulfillment out of their spirituality, and attend services and events related to their faith community. Where’s the burner for that?

But in the end, I realized I was missing the point. The specific burners don’t matter. What matters is that it’s ultimately up to me to decide where and when to apply my energy and focus, and to make peace with the fact that I can’t give my all to everything at once.

My stove might have six burners: family, friends, work, creating, health, and volunteering. Yours might be different. The thing to remember is that no matter what burners you have on your stove, you will have to choose which ones to ramp up and which ones to dial down.

For Clear, it’s all about trade-offs.  Am I okay with pulling back on my creative pursuits while I focus on my volunteer commitments? Can I give my partner less attention than my current business plan and still feel okay with it? If not, what strategies can I use to manage my burners more effectively?

And as Howatt says, we should strive for blending rather than balance, and stay tuned in to how we’re applying our energy.

What do you think about the four burners theory? Does the idea of work-life-etc. “blending” resonate with you? Can you use these concepts to move toward success and productivity?

Maria

Curiosity and creativity

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A good friend of mine is results-oriented to the extreme. He proceeds by tackling and completing tasks in a linear, structured way. He’s a writer too, and swears by detailed outlines, story-arc schematics, and rich character tables.

A few months ago, he confessed that he was dealing with writer’s block.

“I don’t get it,” he said. “I know exactly where my novel is going, and how my main character will overcome a critical internal conflict. I even have the final dramatic scene laid out in bullet points! But I can’t seem to get writing. I’ve set goals for myself, but all my deadlines have flown past—whoosh! It’s totally frustrating.”

I asked him if he’s ever tried a curiosity challenge.

A curiosity challenge is a technique I have used in the past to break out of a writing slump. I have used it when I’m on the verge of being burnt-out by my project, or when I need to re-kindle my passion for writing. I’ve also used it to generate prompts for writing exercises.

All that a curiosity challenge involves is reframing a goal statement into a curiosity question. It’s simple and powerful. Instead of setting a rigid word-count goal or deadline for yourself, try turning it into an experiment.

Frame your experiment with phrases like: “I’m curious if…” or “Is it possible to…” or “I wonder if…” or even “Wouldn’t it be cool to…”

Here are some examples:

Instead of saying this… …try this.
I have to wake up extra-early all week so I can meet my word-count goal. I’m curious if I can get up an hour early every day this week and wrote before my kids got up.
The only way I can make this submission deadline is if I write the whole thing this long weekend. Is it possible to write 10,000 words over one long weekend?
I have to focus on this chapter and finish it before I can move on with my novel. I wonder if I could write a scene from my main character’s dog’s perspective?
My revised chapter 1 is due to my writing group no later than April 1. Wouldn’t it be cool to share a revised draft of chapter 1 with my writing group next month?

This approach takes fear of failure out of the equation. If you’re anxious about not being able to achieve a writing goal, remove the anxiety by turning it into a game. If high pressure makes you heave, make it fun instead.

If you’re finding yourself stuck or blocked or bored, bring a sense of curiosity and wonder to your writing. Don’t plan; play. Be bold. Explore a possibility. Do something new just for the hell of it. Broaden your understanding of what you can achieve by just trying it.

Be ever-curious and challenge yourself to go beyond your normal routine. You’ll be surprised by how this simple approach can give your creativity a kick-start.

Drop me a line and let me know if this technique works for you!

Maria