Round up all those stampeding ideas
Do ideas flood your brain like a herd gone wild? Do you flail around, physically and metaphorically, trying to corral them and drive them into the barn? Are you going mad trying to figure out how to use them all?
I am almost constantly barraged by ideas for essays, stories, poems, novel slivers, quirky descriptions, and metaphoric pearls. Ideas surface everywhere: as I edit clients’ manuscripts, wash dishes, huff through workouts, wait on line, watch people, meditate, fall asleep, and even during tactful small talk at business dinners.
All the deluging ideas used to make me groan. Sometimes I’d even feel envious of writers who complained about their sparse fits of inspiration. I’d grouse internally that my ideas never seemed to stop. How would I ever get to them all, much less organize them or make something of them? Most would end up in a mass of ragged notes or on scraps stuffed under the scanner.
For help, I sought writing advice. And found, to my surprise, that many writers suffer from the TMIS: Too Many Ideas Syndrome (the acronym makes it official). As John Steinbeck observed in a well-known quotation, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen” (Parini, 1994).
Author Leigh Anne Jasheway-Bryant (2008) surveyed other writers on handling the syndrome. For example, Melissa Hart recommends “the bulletin-board approach”: she pins up all her random notes and surveys them as much or as little as she wishes.
Dr. Christiane Northrup, author of many books on women’s health recommends this: “I go with the idea that brings me the most pleasure or has the most juice.” Jasheway-Bryant gives us a great touchstone from successful screenwriter Cynthia Whitcomb: “Think of your ideas like pots on the stove in the kitchen of your creative mind. Lift the lids and look inside. One of them is always closest to being soup. Write that one first.”
In another article, romantic fiction writer Lucy Mitchell (2016) shares several hard-won pointers about TMIS. Like Whitcomb she counsels us to write them down, and then let them go. You can come back to them later. Focus on only one at a time. And meditate(!). It will calm you down.
Creative, creative coach, and entrepreneur Kym Dolcimascolo (2016) assures us that we aren’t a “creative sinner” if we have too many ideas. A sufferer of TMIS herself, she shares principles she practices: Capture the ideas by writing them out in a journal or onto an app, or dictate them into your phone—and keep them in only one place. This method appeases the notes-all-over-the-place syndrome.
Dolcimascolo continues: Set up a review time for each idea—now, later, or maybe never. Prioritize and grab the top one. And get moving with it.
My method blends elements of all this advice. As many writers recommend, I’ve learned, like a dutiful secretary, at least to write all the ideas down. Of course, I won’t be able to develop them all right away, but I write enough so that when I do pick up a note, I can (usually) reassociate to the original idea.
Recently, when my notes threatened to bury my desk, I graduated to a couple of overstuffed colored file folders. Every so often, I go through them and sometimes discover scraps repeating almost identical ideas or words. That’s a comforting sign; the idea has surfaced more than once, and that means it’s worth pursuing.
How to Choose?
But how to decide what to work on? Northrup’s touchstone is whatever idea has “the most juice”; Whitcomb’s is the almost-finished “soup.” Jasheway-Bryant bases her own choices on the “red-dress theory”: at a party the woman who is wearing a red dress rather than the usual black gets the attention. “For me,” she says, “bold, brash ideas are almost always the ones that inspire and motivate me.”
Dolcimascolo advises choosing by a single criterion in relation to your needs of the moment. What is the idea that will take the most or least time? The one that pays the most? The one that seems safest? And—my favorite—the one that makes your “heart sing”?
When I go through my files and piles, at certain notes I feel that delicious rush of excitement and enthusiasm, that lush feeling of joy, that singing heart. Something inside says, “Hey! This will make a great article/essay/memoir! I really want to develop it!”
Recently I unearthed some scratchings about the handwritten notebook of my writing I’d kept in high school. Thinking about that notebook not only brought tears but the heady rush. I yearned to stop everything and run to the computer—and I did and pecked out a first draft.
Why Keep All Those Scattered Ideas?
Why? New ideas can yield gold. As they drift or blare into your mind, don’t dismiss them. In The Artist’s Way, when Julia Cameron (1994) was doing her own Morning Pages, she was questioning everything in her life. Right in the middle, she says, she found herself scribbling something else, and “a character named Johnny came strolling into my pages. Without planning to, I was writing a novel” (p. 15).
Children’s author Kate DiCamillo (2003) too listened to the gold. In an interview, she recounted that one night, falling asleep, in her mind she heard a little girl’s voice. The child said, “I have a dog named Winn-Dixie.” DiCamillo rushed to take down this sentence. That little girl became the main character of her wonderful and award-winning book and movie, Because of Winn-Dixie.
I’ve discovered other reasons why we should record and keep all those scraps:
- You’re writing something.
- You’re honoring your ideas. Every single one may not be fabulous or something you want to pursue. But they’re yours.
- By writing them all down you’re telling yourself, “I’m a writer rich in ideas.”
- You develop and sustain greater confidence in yourself and your writing.
- Noting down all the ideas leads to more (eeek!). Of course, you may never get to flesh out some, or most, to submittable drafts, but accept this.
- By scribbling those notes, you’re gaining continuous practice in observing, pinpointing, expressing what you see, feel, hear, and think.
- You’ll find satisfaction in writing down your notes and snippets.
- Writing leads to writing leads to writing.
So, when you’re bombarded by all those stampeding ideas—welcome them. And use a method that works for you to ride herd on them. You’ll be acknowledging, embracing, and nurturing your endless, infinite creativity.
Cameron, J. (1994). The artist’s way: A spiritual path to higher creativity. Tarcher/Putnam.
DiCamillo, K. (2003). Interview. In A. Pope (Ed.), Children’s writer’s and illustrator’s
market. Writers Digest Books.
Dolcimascolo, K. (2016, March 12). Dealing with too many ideas syndrome?
Jashway-Bryant, L. A. (2008, March 13). 9 ways to overcome too many ideas
Mitchell, L. (2016, May 13). How to handle too many ideas syndrome.
Parini, J. (1994). John Steinbeck: A life. Trafalgar Square.
© 2021 Noelle Sterne
Noelle is a contributor to TAA’s new book, Guide to Making Time to Write: 100+ Time & Productivity Management Tips for Textbook and Academic Authors. Now available as a print and eBook.
Dissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 600 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her second novel. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com