Friday, May 24, 2013

On Creativity: How to Kill Ideas

The mani half of a mani/pedi.
I used to write lists, entitled “Ideas for Poems,” that would contain items like, “Sonnets for every bone in the body, somehow connected” or “Poem about Steve Bartman and his family” or “Limerick that isn’t funny.” I’d write, at the top of a page, “Steve Bartman Poem,” and then, maybe a line or two (“He began to recognize death threats,”), Then, nothing. No more to say. The idea would be completely wilted.

Does this happen to you, too?

For me, the surest way I know to kill an idea is to envision it as a final piece--to see its shape or game, to plant the way I want it to work on the reader. The minute I think “I should write a poem ABOUT x,” I don’t have anything else to say. It’s the “ABOUT” that kills it, specifically. I’m sure some writers are able to create brilliantly, according to plan. But if I know where I’m heading, I suddenly don’t want to go there anymore. (Weirdly, this isn’t true in any other area in my life....if I know the ending to a movie, I’ll still watch it. I’m not particularly spontaneous. I like inventing little routines and rituals.)

I still write little lists (in my tiny notebook, or on the simulated legal pad on my phone--isn’t it funny that it’s yellow?) that I use in my writing process, but I use these very differently. Instead of writing the concept for a poem, I write an image or phrase that occurs to me, that I overhear, or that I overhear from inside my own brain. For instance, one from 408 days ago (the phone tells me this!): “in a joking manor” (that has to be a typo I read). Another, 43 days ago: “mani/pedi.” Another: “the petite mermaid.”

I don’t know if these will ever leave my notebook or phone, but they might. Mostly, this is because I have no idea what these poems would be about. The “mani/pedi” ingredient might turn into a poem about pedicures, but it might also be about candy, or about Lee Press On nails, and how we used to get those to put on each other during sleepovers, or about how much I hate my nails. “Mani/pedi” might go all oranges/sardines on me, as I work.

One of the thoughts I have while writing that excites me: I have no idea where this is going, or if it’s any good, but I’m going to keep working on it anyway and see what happens.

I have learned that if the framework is more interesting to me than the content, whatever I produce will be useful only as an exercise. I will be less present as I write, and I will make something formulaic and unsatisfying.

How does this compare to what you know of your creativity? What habits kill your ideas?


  1. I do that exact same thing.

    One of the ways those "throwaway idea fragments" end up becoming useful is by eventually cannibalizing parts of them for new poems that could use a dash of something "other."

  2. Hannah, This is profound! For me, too, an Idea (announcing itself with a capital I) is dead on arrival. A little notion or observation (look, the shadows are nimble as outlaws!) is a bit of living something. An overdetermined poem is not only a dead one; it's often one that's never born. I think we can get misled by a too-literal embrace of the organic metaphor of growth: the oak tree already IS in the acorn, but a poem doesn't exist anywhere before it gives birth to itself!

  3. I have to agree with you...when I go with a preconceived idea of what my results have to be in an experiment (that is called bias) then I am sure to run into problems. I think I have a notion and plan but have to allow myself to be surprised. I took a workshop that suggested making lists that come to mind with no connections necessarily and then apply them to solving a problem. And it works, showing that our minds really can do so much. Unlike you, once I know the ending I am not so interested in seeing it anymore....and if you tell me something is delicious it is likely that i will not eat it because it is already done. : ) Enjoy the long holiday, I will be working a lot least a good part of it...hope you will not.

  4. Hannah,
    I share your practice, or maybe compulsion, of writing down phrases that I hear in my head or in the world.

    And, like you, I've learned that I cannot force the poem. I can tend the idea and guide it to grow. Richard Hugo, in his book "The Triggering Town" covers this topic, and other poem-making ideas, really well.

  5. Hannah, the process you describe is similar to the process I experienced writing the memoir pieces. I would think a certain piece would be about some event or experience, but once I started writing it was like playing with Ouija board. The words themselves took me to another place, triggered by memories of details I had entirely forgotten.

  6. I am definitely the same way. I try so hard to write poems based on an idea. I get a few lines out and then nothing.

    What also kills my creativity is just life. Interacting with the world. Solitude helps my creativity.

    And being as "confessional" as I sadly am, intense negative emotions, existential and spiritual angst, make me the most creative. So, when my life is just static, uneventful with no traumas roughing me about, I am less creative.

  7. Aren't all the workshops these days saying it's about the journey, not the destination? And aren't we all embracing the old line (was it Frost?), "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader"--surprise being a good thing.

    However, your topic could also lead to a 20-hour or 20-page discussion.


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