Out of Ideas? Make Something Terrible!

One of the complaints that creative people make over and over again is the lack of “ideas.” On sites like NaNoWriMo, on YouTube discussion boards, in groups of fine artists…everyone says they want to get to work, but many say they’re simply out of ideas.

I’ve often said that ideas are everywhere, and it’s easy enough to just pick one, but that’s not necessarily helpful if you’re in a mindset that the idea you are going to work on is going to be THE idea that….fill in the blank. Sells a lot of copies, or wins awards, or makes people want to go to your concert, or even satisfy your creative standards.

So let’s take a step back from that and think about what the value in working on something, even if you aren’t happy with the thing you’re working on, can do for you. Often, artists have to take on work they’re not happy with for other reasons (to pay the bills, most regularly), and often, those gigs can bring about a change in perspective that the artist wouldn’t have gained otherwise. Directing an absolute stinker of a play can give a playwright some ideas on how one would improve the production, which can lead to a revelation about the plot of the next play she’s going to write. An artist working on a portrait that is tedious and in a style he doesn’t like may open up some abstract thought that can be translated onto canvas.

While ideas you’re not passionate about may not be what you want to work on right now, they may be the things that you need to work on right now. A bad idea can often open up the part of the brain that wants to fix things (or simply escape the horror of the thing you’re doing), and can kickstart your creativity in ways that toiling away at The One True Idea might not. My suggestion to many artists of all types is to have a list of terrible ideas that you can work on when you “don’t have any ideas.”

What’s the value in keeping such a list? First of all, you’ve already acknowledged that the ideas are terrible, so the stakes are gone. If you make this art badly, what’s the harm? You knew going in that it was going to be a stinker, so you can be free to make it as terrible as you can. You also won’t feel any shame in abandoning the project should some better idea or a spark of inspiration come along. It’s the type of project you can drop and pick back up without any consequence, because it’s JUST THAT BAD.

But also, you could just make things and release them into the world, to see what happens. If you are on a treadmill of making regular creations that have to be released on a schedule, perhaps a bad idea once in a while isn’t going to kill you. It’s not a great process to make completely awful things on a regular basis, but maybe that miserable, wretched thing in your head isn’t going to alienate your audience in the way you think it will. Perhaps they’ll see something, a glimmer of a spark of a notion of an idea, that you can use to resonate with them that you wouldn’t have found if you didn’t give “doing bad work” a try once in a while.

Ideas in and of themselves are fairly neutral. It may be that you are enough of an artist, that you are creative enough, to take the very worst idea you can think of and make something transcendent with it. Certainly, there are artists who have done the opposite.

Keep working and see what happens.

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