Losing the idea

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, March 18, 2014 12:17 AM

It occurs to me that I haven’t had a good idea in a long time. This is quite disturbing to me. I used to have ideas all the time and while not all of them were good, many of them had potential to develop into something decent. They would simply appear to me, these ideas. I would be sitting on the back of the motorcycle as we zoomed through the back canyons in the sunshine and I would have an idea for a short story. Another time, I had an idea for a novel. I’ve written neither but the ideas are good, they’re sound, and I have extensive notes.

I would wake up sometimes and have to reach for a pen and paper because I had an idea. Sometimes before I went to bed I would do the same, have an idea and scribble it down before sleep. Lately it seems that I lie in bed and do things like stare at the ceiling fan as it spins lazily. No ideas are presenting themselves and if I try too hard to have an idea, I feel as if I might rupture something. Maybe the fan is taking my ideas and lazily spinning them out into the ether where someone else will have them.

It scares me, this lack of good ideas. Not scares me in an I-better-get-a-gun-in-order-to-protect-myself kind of way; more in the holy-crap-what-happens-if-I-never-get-another-idea-then-what kind of way.

I voiced this concern to Bobbi today. I felt stupid as I typed the words. I feel stupid now. I’m in an idea rut, I’ve lost the idea, I said. What do I do? Naturally, she didn’t have an answer, nor did I expect her to. I think I just needed to vocalize my idea deficit in order to make it real because if it’s real then maybe I have a chance of turning the deficit into a surplus.

Years ago when I watched The West Wing, Sam Seaborn and Toby Ziegler, played by Rob Lowe and Richard Schiff respectively and scripted by Aaron Sorkin, discussed how they felt they had lost their talent. It was during the first season of the show, in an episode entitled Enemies. In it, Leo gives his daughter Mallory tickets to the Chinese opera and Mallory promptly asks Sam to accompany her which leads Leo to give Sam the assignment of writing a birthday message for someone. There is this exchange between Toby and Sam:

Toby: All right… It couldn’t have gone far, right?
Sam: No.Toby: Somewhere in this building… is our talent.
Sam: Yes. 

They’re obsessed with writing this message and it’s not coming out as lyrically as they’d like. I get it. There are many times when I write something and I know it’s fine. It’s just not great; it doesn’t sing. I think what Sam and Toby had really lost was the idea. The talent was there. If you have it, it’s always there. But without a means to express it, without the idea, it too seems lost.

My stream of ideas has become more of a trickle. Maybe it’s because we’re experiencing such a horrendous drought out here in the west. Maybe if we get some more rain my ideas will begin to bloom again.

I know this is all just temporary and that it happens to all writers, artists, musicians. A dry spell; that’s all it is. Bobbi thought maybe it was because I saw Alice Hoffman this weekend. Maybe. It makes sense when you see someone you so admire, someone who does what you do and so much better, that you suddenly feel inadequate. The problem is that I started feeling this way long before this past weekend.  

How is this good? Why am I writing about it on a blog that shouts “celebrate something?” I suppose it’s because it gives me an opportunity to think differently, to try harder, to strive for better. And that’s always something to celebrate because all three – thinking differently, trying harder, striving to be better – have to lead to something new, toward somewhere I haven’t been before, preferably to the ideas I have somehow lost in the last few months. We’ll see, but I’m open to having those ideas back, if the ideas are open to coming back. If they are, I’ll be living it out loud again soon. 

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live out loud

The talent of obsessing

by Lorin Michel Thursday, July 28, 2011 9:00 PM

It’s always interesting to me when people write about the creative process. I’ve never been entirely sure that you can write about something like that. How do you qualify it? It’s like knowing where ideas come from. I read a book years and years ago that talked about how easy it was to discover the creativity that’s buried deep inside each one of us. I don’t remember it specifically discussing talent, as if talent was incidental or assumed; as if being creative was what produced talent. The book was called Dancing Corn Dogs in the Night. It was written by movie producer Don Hahn, and it listed some of the forces that drive creativity, namely balance, chaos, persistence and truth. I think he also threw in chocolate and coffee. To the list, I’d add obsession.

There is something about the creative process that nurtures and feeds obsession. If you paint, you must paint. If you draw, you must hold pencils. If you make music, you must always be composing. If you write, everything is a story, a possibility, a potential scene, a headline, an intoxicating sentence that channels Dostoyevsky, transporting the reader.

Obsession has somehow become a bad word, and in the case of Calvin Klein, an over-powering fragrance, but I don’t think it is a bad word. I think it’s a word about focus, about drive, about the relentless pursuit to make the world better through the creative process.

A word cloud of the next paragraph

The dictionary defines obsession as the domination of one’s thoughts or feelings by a persistent idea, image or desire. The word’s origins, dating to around 1510, are from the Latin obsessionem, meaning a blockade or siege. It was also discussed as the hostile action of an evil spirit, rather like possession but without the body and soul invasion. That’s pretty much right on. When I’m obsessed with something, it takes over my entire being. It’s all I can think of, all I want to do. I get that way about writing, but not enough. Because it scares me. Not the obsession, but the act of writing. And yet I do it everyday. Still, to be obsessed is to open myself up, to unzip the tight emotions and influences and thoughts and ideas and let them out to play. They race from my head, down my arm, through my fingers and out onto the keys of my keyboard where they miraculously appear on a word document. But putting them out there, allowing their early release from the prison of my imagination, sets me up for failure. It puts me out there for judgment.

I believe that’s why so many people don’t pursue their creativity and don’t channel their talent. It’s scary to put yourself out there in the world for review because what if the reviews are bad? And they will be, because I’m not good enough for them to be good. And what if they are good? Then I’d be terrified that I have only one good thing in me and then what if more is expected? What if I really do have talent? What if I really don’t?

This is also obsession. The need to obsess about the possibilities while obsessing about the realities, and then wondering which is which and what is what.

No wonder so many of history’s most creative souls were insane.

I have heard that the way through this is to simply do it, which for someone who’s obsessed is actually easy. I’m terrified to write so I write every day. I write while I sleep. I write because I have no choice. I keep a pad of paper and a lighted pen on the table next to my side of the bed in case I have an idea that absolutely must be written down before it escapes my mind and through the tips of my fingers because that’s it’s usual path, and if there’s nothing at the end of my fingers to catch it, where will it go? And if it leaves, maybe that was The One.

So I obsess. I believe that anyone who dreams obsesses, anyone who possesses the myth of talent obsesses because maybe that talent is real. Oh. My. God.

And maybe it is a myth after all.

So I obsess some more, and I write for myself and I read it myself and then every day I let a little tiny bit out into the world to have others read it, and then I obsess about what they think. But having an audience of only one can be lonely. Creativity should be shared, celebrated. As should the talent of obsessing. 

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live out loud

Where do ideas come from?

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, April 12, 2011 9:58 PM

I’m asked fairly regularly where my ideas come from, and I always answer honestly: I have no idea. I don’t sit at my desk and concentrate really hard on having an idea. It doesn’t happen that way, at least not for me. I find that most of my ideas come when I’m not necessarily trying to have one. Ideas used to come to me when I was walking the dog. I would need a headline, or a concept for a client’s product and suddenly there it would be. On a really good walk, I might have three or four good ideas. I think things come to me when I stop trying so hard and thinking so strenuously. When I let my mind simply wander, even while keeping some boundaries in place around the perimeter, I give ideas permission to come in, stay awhile, maybe having something to eat. If it rattles around for a good while and seems even more interesting for the time we’ve spent together, then I go about developing it.

The simple answer to where ideas come from is everywhere and anywhere. Sometimes they appear to people searching to solve a problem or an equation, like Einstein and his seminal E=MC2, or Sir Isaac Newton’s theory on gravity. Recently there have been ideas like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter to encourage more interaction, using the Internet to work for us in terms of creating a social network rather than isolating us.

There have been ideas for cars, airplanes, telephones, computers, post-it notes, pens that allow you to write in the dark. Everything around us is there because someone, somewhere had an idea.

Ideas can come from brainstorming, when we sleep, when we’re trying to sleep and can’t turn our brains off, when we’re staring into the pantry wondering what to make for dinner, when we allow ourselves the luxury to think in the abstract.

I have a friend who has an idea for a children’s book on ideas. It’s brilliant and I hope to help her develop it. Where did she get that idea? It was born from necessity and from creativity, from wanting to do something different with her life, and from allowing her mind to wander. It also came from sketching and scribbling, a very freeing way to welcome something new.

The word idea is actually inherently feminine, even though many of the world’s most famous ideas are attributed to men. It comes from the Greek idéā, a combination of “ide” which means to see and “a”, the feminine-noun ending. It first occurred around 1400, and means a concept, an impression, a belief, a plan, fantasy, philosophy and Kantianism, an idea of pure reason.

Plato was the first philosopher to discuss ideas in detail. René Descartes advanced the idea of ideas to include knowledge and common sense. He was decidedly less philosophical than Plato, much like John Locke who basically maintained that ideas were good sense. Immanuel Kant realized that ideas aren’t always realized. Interestingly his last name rhymes nicely with ‘can’t’ which never accomplishes anything.

Rudolf Steiner saw ideas as objects, Wilhelm Wundt studied them as conscious representations of an object, Charles Sanders Pierce viewed ideas quite pragmatically, claiming that ideas should be viewed as how they would and could change our lives should the idea be applied, and G.F. Stout and J.M. Baldwin brought ideas to life as adequate images.

Ideas are good and bad, interesting and scary, strong and weak, applicable and discarded. But they’re still ideas, thoughts and possibilities for something different and something better.

Where did the idea to write this blog post on ideas come from? Kevin asked me the other day where I got the idea to do something, and I told him I didn’t know. Where did my friend get her idea for her new book? Where do artists get the idea of what they want to paint, or musicians what they want to play, or authors what story they want to tell? Where do business leaders get their ideas to challenge convention, or inventors their idea to change the world?

Perhaps someone reached inside and flipped the switch.

To paraphrase a famous quote by the anthropologist Margaret Mead, never doubt that even the smallest idea can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

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live out loud

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