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Shiny new ideas

Sometimes I think I should be banned from reading the Sunday New York Times, or perusing the back issues of The New Yorker piling up next to my bed, or listening to any of the many history-based podcasts to which I currently subscribe. I love them all, but they are lousy with story ideas—which I am lousy at ignoring.

I know, I shouldn’t complain. Better to have too many ideas than too few, right? After all, new ideas are so…shiny! And so full of possibility! Before I begin writing, any project might achieve mythical perfection (never mind that I know such a thing doesn’t exist). Ah, the whimsical picture book I might write! The provocative play I might pen!

The world of might-be writing is a mighty delightful place to spend time. Thinking about new writing ideas is much more immediately gratifying than sitting down to the day-to-day slog of getting words onto paper (or computer screen) to work on one of my in-progress pieces. And so, like Dorothy in the poppy field, I lie back, feeling sleepy…

…and awake, some time later, to find the cursor in my most recent Scrivener document blinking balefully at me, awaiting a return of my attention.

It’s tempting to say that new ideas are my kryptonite, sucking energy away from the projects I’ve already started. But they are also as necessary to me as the very air I breathe. Not just because I need ideas in order to write, but because the very act of coming up with new ideas—and seeing myself as someone capable of coming up with new ideas—serves as fuel for my writing.

The other day I came up with a concept for a new picture book. (Thank you, Storystorm!) Within the space of two days I found myself racing through three drafts. Part of me felt guilty: the hours spent on this new manuscript were ones I’d been planning to devote to an in-process novel-in-verse, one I’ve been working on for quite some time. But I also felt energized: I'd made a thing! Which meant I was a Person Who Could Make Things! Now, you could argue that I should have already known this about myself (seeing as how I’ve made things before), but somehow during the plodding work of the past few months, I seemed to have forgotten this fact.

I’ve spent much of last year hard at work on some very slow projects. One in particular, this novel-in-verse, has continued to confound me. I’m still very much at the point of trying to figure out exactly what I want to write about, and for what audience. Taking two days to work with immense speed—to go from idea to completed draft of a picture book manuscript—helped remind me that I am capable of multiple modes: slow and fast, old ideas and new.

In their creativity-focused podcast Start With This, Nightvale creators Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink spend one episode discussing the importance of working with speed, then a later one emphasizing slowness. They acknowledge the apparent contradiction, and discuss the benefits of deliberately playing around with one’s work speed. As they explain, sometimes you need to take the time to figure out what the thing is that you’re trying to make; other times you should push yourself to speed up and actually make the thing. To that I can now add that I have discovered there is similar benefit to be gained from sometimes taking time to work through existing ideas, and sometimes barreling ahead to pursue new ones.

My friends and I have a New Year’s Eve tradition of choosing a one-word theme for the coming year, rather than making resolutions. This year, I’ve chosen the word “expansive.” I’m going to try to cast off false dichotomies, avoid putting myself into a box. When faced with the dilemma of whether to spend my time pursing new ideas or working on old ones, I’m going to respond with the improviser’s mantra: “yes, and.”

So here's to a year full of writing all types of things. I'm sure I'll spend much of it working to finish projects I've already started (there are certainly enough of those!). But I'll also keep reading those articles, listening to those podcasts, and allowing myself to be seduced by shiny new ideas.


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