Ideas always find you at the most inconvenient moments. In the middle of work meetings. While you’re driving. During your shower — you know, the one place you couldn’t do work even if you tried.
I’ve always thought there is something frustratingly poetic about this — the fact that it’s when we’re most resistant to possibilities that a thousand of them come calling. Loudly. All at once. In the middle of the night. Again.
Meeting and adopting a new idea is one of the most exciting parts about being a writer. That feeling you get when that light bulb clicks on is unlike anything else in the human experience.
But what happens when you begin to bond with a new idea you don’t actually have time to care for? If you don’t start working on it right now, will you forget it? Lose interest? Will someone else get to it first? How do you survive when the idea, neglected and ruthless, begins ripping your brain apart begging to be set free?
I’m glad you asked.
Recently, I started writing a short story.
This is neither unusual nor interesting until you add in the fact that I have … let’s just say A LOT going on. A lot of people need my words right now and no matter how hard I tried, I knew there was no way I was going to be able to work on this new (though small) project anytime in the immediate future.
So here’s what I did:
- I let the idea bounce around in my head for as long as I could stand it
- I sat down and wrote a thousand words of the story I couldn’t stop thinking about
- I saved and closed out the document and left it.
I haven’t touched the story since. Oh, trust me, I wish I had. If I could have started and finished writing it all in one sitting you better believe I would have. But there were some pretty good reasons I didn’t — mainly the fact that it was Friday night and I was exhausted, plus the next day I had other assignments and projects that needed more attention (priorities).
Sometimes, no matter how much you desperately want to start or continue working on something, you can’t. Something unmovable is blocking your path — whether that be another task that needs doing or the fact that you already have 20 other projects you can’t abandon for the sake of this one new hint of an idea.
So in these cases — desperate to create, knowing you can’t get too attached (yet)?
Write it down. Maybe even outline or write some of the story. Then leave it alone.
Give it some attention. Make it feel appreciated and that it’s worth the love. Then say goodbye (for now).
I’ve personally found that the really good ideas, the ones worth at least pursuing, are the ones that stick around. You don’t forget them because they don’t let themselves be forgotten. They are the ones you keep thinking about, almost tortured by them as you continue on with other things.
And as you force these ideas to remain just so — ideas, and nothing more, yet — something amazing happens. Even when you don’t actively touch them, they begin to grow and change all on their own.
The longer you wait to bring them to life, the more you have to work with when you do finally sit down to pour them out onto paper. This not only allows you to finish other things you’ve started and avoid collecting abandoned writing projects, but it also prevents what I like to call “early onset” brain drought (some call it writer’s block).
It’s what often happens when you immediately jump on an idea, in its new and wobbly form, and write three pages only to discover that’s all you had in you. Your idea was, in its early stages, only three pages of a story. Give it time and many rough pages and you will eventually be able to help it grow into the accomplishment it was always meant to be. But many aspiring writers never make it to that point because once they get stuck early on, they’re, for whatever their reasons might be, unable to go back and finish what they started.
You can eliminate that frustration by holding off on fully diving into something that hasn’t fully formed in your head yet. Is this an easy thing to do? Not at all — sometimes not working on a story that has taken over my brain feels like I’m being forced to hold my breath. I want to release that creative tension. I don’t want that story to just sit there untouched.
But I do. Sometimes. Other times, I let myself start writing just a little bit, to take the edge off, and then I force myself to stop, put it away, and continue on doing what needs to be checked off my list before I can afford to turn my attention back to it.
It’s hard to stop writing once you start. But if you take control of it and stop before you run out of steam, you’ll have some left over for your brain to play with, and that’s how the story begins unfolding itself inside your head even when you’re trying not to let it.
Sometimes this means you return to it every morning or every other day or every week or so and you write a little bit more, filling in the basic framework for a bigger story that needs telling, and leave it again in favor of the more pressing matters before you.
This takes a lot of discipline and patience, and not everyone can do it. I can only because I’ve spent many years training myself to do it — the stopping and starting in controlled bursts, avoiding rushing through something that isn’t ready and burning out and collecting unfinished projects on my hard drive.
It’s okay if you can’t do this right now, if you can’t stop yourself from running headfirst into a new idea regardless of the pending consequences. That’s part of life as a beginning writer — if you have an idea, you absolutely SHOULD do something about it! Go for it! Yes! But in time you can and should learn to manage your ideas, so that when it does come time to put them into words, it’s slightly less of a struggle and more of a very silent, solitary party. Of one.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.