What A Good Idea Feels Like

Image: Adam Westbrook

In my experience, a good idea almost never appears fully formed.

It’s more like a vast gas cloud in space: a feeling here, a colour there, a quote, a couple of chords that float past your nostrils and evaporate. Whatever it is, you like it, but you can’t attach it to anything yet.

In the passing of time, those gases slowly condense to form liquids and eventually something solid.

Like the good universe itself, patience is necessary.

In her book Big Magic Elizabeth Gilbert has this great way of describing ideas as floating sprites in search of human partners:

Ideas are driven by a simple impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner…Therefore, ideas spend eternity swirling around us, searching for available and willing human partners.”

This little story does two really powerful things for me. Firstly, it detaches my ego from the quality of my ideas. I am not my ideas and neither do they belong to me.

Secondly, it tells me I need to be a partner worthy of collaboration. That means being at my desk every day. Experience has taught me that these idea sprites can sense an artist who is phoning it in.

You can always tell a good idea because it seems to spark new ones. It is additive, not subtractive.

If you find yourself thinking “oh and what about this!”, “that would be so cool if it did this!” then you might have a good idea. You can tell a good idea in a meeting too because it has people chiming in with excited suggestions (as opposed to criticisms).

Like nuclear fission in slow motion these ideas bounce off each other and a sense of huge potential energy starts to build.

When the chain reaction is building you begin to find clues everywhere you look. A line of poetry becomes a potential title; a phrase you overhear on the street brings a character into focus.

Ideas need to be left alone in the dark for as long as possible and we must resist the temptation, as Julia Cameron puts it: “to pull the idea up by the roots to see if it is growing.”

There’s a surrender involved here. Good ideas don’t come together reliably, so you have to wait and be at peace.

One surefire way to prematurely expose your fragile idea is to tell people about it. Keep your idea a secret as long as you can.

I have had this experience of a big exciting idea building inside me enough times now to recognise the feelings. And I’ve been able to make enough of them manifest to feel confident that when I get the feels again, I’m going to make it happen.

It’s thrilling isn’t it?

Adam Westbrook writes The Third Something, a newsletter about creativity and visual storytelling.

Video artist working at The New York Times. I write a weekly newsletter about visual storytelling and creativity. https://adamwestbrook.substack.com/

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