On waiting for ideas to come to you or hunting them down.
Sometimes it feels like I’ve been hunting for ideas my whole life. It can be a joy or it can be complete and utter hell. You know, that hell of never-ending, sleepless nights. The half-waking, grasping at phantom thoughts. Then counting the hours till dawn releases you from your bed to start the hunt all over again.
What I’ve learned over the years is pretty simple. If you’ve read my piece On A Technique for Producing Ideas, you’ll know the blank page doesn’t have to be terrifying. But there’s always that nagging voice in my head whispering:
“This time you’re going to fail”.
“The incubating stage, where you let something beside the conscious mind do the work of synthesis.” James Webb Young — A Technique for Producing Ideas
You may have to look under a lot of rocks and kiss a lot of metaphorical frogs. Take a lot of showers and stare at the wall till the right idea jumps out at you. Perhaps the hardest part is learning to fill your mind with a problem and inspiration and then forget about it. (That’s step three of the process — “the incubating stage, where you let something beside the conscious mind do the work of synthesis”.)
It’s like passing the entry test to be a member of Tolstoy’s White Polar Bear Club. All you needed to do was stand in the corner and not think of a white bear for 30 minutes. Give it a go.
Once the ideas start appearing, then go after them with a club.
A writer I know used to spend the best part of the morning reading the newspaper from cover to cover. Then he’d do the crossword. From the outside, it looked like he was being completely unproductive. After lunch, he’d turn out dozens of ideas. Some good, some bad, some indifferent — but ideas nonetheless.
It’s an almighty challenge to let your mind do the hard work while you do something else. All the time thinking you should be at your desk, being productive. So you have to force yourself to read the paper. Leave the office. Go home, eat dinner with your other half. Play with your kids or the dog. Watch junk on TV. Go for a run or workout at the gym, visit a gallery or go to the movies.
Whatever lets your subconscious do its thing.
The thing about ideas is that you have to sneak up on them. Or let them sneak up on you. You learn to catch them from the corner of your eye. When one appears, throw yourself at it, lasso it, nail it down, make it yours. Sometimes you might get lucky and catch a whopper, other times a tiddler.
Either way, you’ve got an idea of sorts to help you move forward.
And when you catch an idea that’s really, really good, don’t let it go. Hang onto it for dear life. Nurture it, play with it, feed it to make it grow big and strong. And if you catch one that’s the runt of the litter, don’t be afraid to let it go. There’s always another one lurking in the shadows, waiting for you to find it.
Deadlines tend to flush ideas out too. Then you do have to go hunting for inspiration. It’s the time when the nagging voice gets louder. Don’t listen to it. Keep your ears open for the snap of a twig and the rustle of leaves. That’s the sound of an idea trying to sneak away through the undergrowth.
At other times, you don’t need the club at all. You just need to make sure you’ve done everything you can to be ready. Then wait for the idea to waltz up and tap you on the shoulder.
A few years back I ran a big pitch for a piece of government business. There was a lot of pressure over six weeks. I worked solo between Christmas and New Year and even on New Year’s Day to get the pitch finished. The big meeting was the first day back after the holidays and we came away from feeling pretty good. (By the way, I don’t recommend deserting your family over the holidays for the sake of an idea. But that’s another story.)
The next day, the client called to confirm we’d won the pitch. But… They loved the overarching idea but we had to change the execution by 2pm the following afternoon.
My art director and I were on the ropes. We were looking forward to a little R&R. Now we had to roll up our sleeves and get out in the woods again. We couldn’t wait, we had to find some inspiration.
And nothing came. Zip, zilch, nada.
After four hours and going around in circles, we went to the local Italian for dinner and a break. Over plates of pasta and a bottle of wine we talked about all sorts of things but not the campaign.
And suddenly we had a third guest at the table. An idea had snuck past the waiter and was eyeing my lasagne.
We grabbed it, gave it a good feed, brushed it up and made it presentable. It was a long night. 12 hours later, we let it out of the cage in front of the client. Their response? “This is even better than the pitch. How did you do it so fast?”
The answer appeared because we’d been thinking about it for over a month. Our tired brains were primed and ready to go. We just had to leave them alone for a bit and there it was, that big hairy-scary monster of an idea staring us in the face. Not only did it make the client happy, it delivered the results they needed and picked up some awards on the way.
So, some days you’ll just have to man up, dust off your club and start looking under rocks. And if that fails, step away from Google, order the pizzas and see what ideas come looking for you.