Bloom Where You're Writing* By: Noelle Sterne


Are you flooded with ideas like a tomato crop gone wild? Do you flail around, physically and metaphorically, trying to tie off all the shoots? Do you go mad trying to figure out how to use them all?

For me, maybe like you, ideas for stories, poems, essays, novel snippets, quirky descriptions, and metaphoric pearls constantly proliferate. Ideas surface anywhere:, falling asleep washing dishes, huffing through workouts, waiting on line, watching people, meditating, even making tactful small talk at business dinners. I’ve scribbled notes on anything from post-its to full pages, usually handwritten, sometimes typed.

I used to groan at all the ideas that endlessly deluge me. Sometimes I’d even feel envious of writers who complained about their sparse ideas. I’d grouse internally that my ideas never seemed to stop. How would I ever get to them all, much less organize them? Most would end up in a mass on top of my filing cabinets or under files of present work.

I’ve learned, though, like a dutiful secretary, to take them down. If ideas continually bombard you, I advise you to do the same, even if you know you won’t be able to develop them right away. Write enough so that when you’re ready to pick up the project again, you’ll easily reassociate to the original idea.

A Confession
I must admit that most of my random ideas still sit, mostly in a couple of overstuffed colored file folders, waiting, waiting. But every so often I go through them and sometimes come upon more than one scrap repeating almost the identical idea or words. This is a comforting sign; it means my writer’s mind has mulled the idea over and, because it’s come up and been recorded more than once, it’s worth pursuing.

When I go through these files and pluck out a certain note, I feel that delicious rush of excitement and enthusiasm that says, “This will make a great article! I really want to develop it!”

So I make computer and hard copy files, label them with at least a working title, and transcribe or tuck my notes into them. Often in the process, more flows out, and I take fifteen minutes from whatever other work has been most pressing to add a few or a few hundred words.

I also keep in easy view (on desktop or start menu) a separate “working” folder of such pieces-in-progress. This folder reminds me of them and ensures they won’t get buried somewhere deep in my computer. And I’ll go to one or another as a break from the present longer project.

Another admission—mine isn’t the greatest way to ride herd on runaway ideas. It isn’t highly organized or catalogued, and I can’t retrieve a certain idea or theme at a fingertip’s notice. But because I’m always working on several pieces at once and paying attention to that juicy feeling of joy for the next, I sometimes go right to the file-making stage. I’ve made peace with my quasi-organized method.

Taming Those Runaway Ideas
Nevertheless, other writers have tackled the bombardment directly and offer helpful organizational methods, especially if you’re more left-brained than I. Veteran freelance writer Kathleen Ewing in “How to Cope With Too Many Ideas” (Writing for Dollars, 2009) recommends initial steps: Assign the idea a working title that evokes the thrust of the piece. Then make file cards for ten or twelve titles. Place these on a wall nearby and review them daily. The appeal of one or another will begin to lure you.

Writer and writing teacher Leigh Anne Jasheway-Bryant offers similar advice in “9 Ways to Overcome Too Many Ideas Syndrome” (Writer’s Digest, 2008). She surveyed other writers for their strategies to handle the Too-Many-Ideas Syndrome (TMIS), as she calls it. Jasheway-Bryant quotes author Melissa Hart who touts “the bulletin-board approach,” in which she can see her many projects right up on a wall.

Once the projects have assumed a card or file identity, the next step, of course, is to evaluate them. How? By your visceral reactions. Ewing recommends arranging the titles in terms of their appeal, choosing the top three titles you feel most “jazzed “ about, “the most charming, tempting or exciting.”

Jasheway-Bryant uses her “red dress theory,” based on the (wholly scientific) premise that, at a party, the women wearing red rather than the usual black dresses stand out and get attention:
When faced with an overwhelming number of ideas, I try to evaluate them to see which one seems most like a red dress in a sea of black. For me, bold, brash ideas are almost always the ones that inspire and motivate me.
How to Choose?

Jasheway-Bryant also points out a related and very important standard: passion. She quotes Dr. Christiane Northrup, author of bestselling books on women’s health, who says, “I go with the idea that brings me the most pleasure or has the most juice.”

I agree. Recently poring through one of those stuffed files, I unearthed a draft of an essay about the handwritten notebook of my writing I’d meticulously kept in high school. It not only brought tears but that heady, exciting rush. I yearned to stop everything and run to the computer. To me, this is the best touchstone and will sustain you through the necessary drafts.

Don’t worry about who will buy or publish it. Just get it down.

Why Keep All Those Scattered Ideas?

When new ideas drift or blare into your mind, don’t dismiss them. Pay attention. They can yield gold. Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way recounted how, trying to get over a massive block, she developed her Morning Pages. As she questioned herself and everything on paper, she said that with no warning "a character named Johnny came strolling into my pages. Without planning to, I was writing a novel" (p. 15). She listened and wrote.

Children’s author Kate DiCamillo paid attention too. In an interview in Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market (2003), she said that one night, falling asleep, in her mind she heard a little girl’s voice. With a southern accent, 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 award-winning book and movie, Because of Winn-Dixie.

When we pay attention, such emerging gems may lead to comparable successes. I’ve discovered other reasons too why we should record all those ideas, paragraphs, lines, phrases, scraps, wisps.
1. You’re honoring your ideas. This is not to say that every single one will be fabulous or something you want to pursue. But they’re yours.
2. But by writing them all down, you’re telling yourself, “I’m a writer rich in ideas.” Taking them down and repeating this statement will help you develop and sustain confidence in yourself and your writing.
3. Noting all the ideas leads to more (eeek!). Of course you may never get to flesh out some, or most, but that’s not the point. Instead, be grateful for them.
4. You’re gaining continuous practice in observing, pinpointing, expressing. Here are some examples from one of my overloaded file folders (these excerpts may not make the greatest sense yet):
· rattle through life
· Poetry’s not for me. I’m pulled to prose, heavy with fruit, dark ripe plums, thick velvet jackets.
· My mother’s voice said to me, “Enjoy, enjoy. I worried too much, took everything too seriously, kept too many resentments hugged close until they smothered my art and life.”
· After reading Peter Bricklebank’s chapter on the personal essay and memoir in The Portable MFA in Creative Writing:
He said, “any writer worth her eraser” (p. 115).
I scribbled, with a note of appropriate credit to him, “any writer worth his delete key.”
He said that editing is “like hand-to-hand, phrase-by-phrase combat” (p. 129).
I scribbled, “hand-to-phrase combat.”
5. Writing leads to writing leads to writing. As you may have already experienced, a mysterious connection triggers between our head/heart/creativity and our writing modes. God (or your choice of Being) built into us a mysterious link from arm-to-wrist-to-fingers-holding-pen or fingers-flying-on-keyboard.
6. Nuggets appear. See number 4 (even though I have no idea yet how I’ll use any of these).
7. You’re acknowledging your creativity. A bombardment of ideas you’re your creativity is flowing.

How Much Creativity?

So what if you never get to some/many/most of your ideas? The ideas themselves, and recording them, whether as titles, phrases, tufts of sentences, or chunks of paragraphs, help keep us prolific. They feed our creativity. If we cut off our flow when we’re not asking for it, it may be hard to reignite when we need it for a new article or the next stage of our novel.

As important as is organizing your ideas, the habit does more—it keeps your creativity in practice and reaffirms it. It reasserts your power to create, and so helps eradicate those leeching depressions and jealousies.

Maybe strangely, I’ve never doubted my creativity or feared it would run dry. It spills over to many things—cooking, furniture-arranging, clothes-combining, gift-wrapping.

I advise you too not to doubt your creativity. Affirm it, allow the time, and notice the many ways it surfaces. It is limitless, you know, bottomless, endless, as accessible as you declare it. Open to it.

So listen when you’re bombarded by all those tomato-riot words, phrases, fragments, sentences, paragraphs, outlines. Welcome them and get them down. You’ll be acknowledging, embracing, sustaining, and nurturing your infinite creativity.

 Author, editor, ghostwriter, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle ventures occasionally into her stuffed files of ideas and pulls out nuggets that excite her. Some of these have blossomed into full articles that have even been published, part of over 300 fiction and nonfiction pieces in print and online venues. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, for over 28 years Noelle has guided doctoral candidates to completion of their dissertations. Based on this work, her latest project-in-progress is a practical-psychological-spiritual handbook, Grad U: Complete Your Dissertation—Finally—and Ease the Trip for Yourself and Everyone Who Has to Live With You. In her current book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books), Noelle draws examples from her practice and other aspects of life to help writers and others release regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at http://www.trustyourlifenow.com/

Image: Freedigitalphotos.net




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  2. Thanks Noelle, for these great, innovative strategies here.


  3. Noelle responded by email:

    "A pleasure, Jennifer. One of our greatest gifts is our creativity. My hope is that your readers/writers recognize this and nurture and honor their own creativity, even if it means some stuffed files and unruly piles."

  4. WOW! I never thought that others had this problem! My husband hates my mess with a vengeance! I tell him that this 'mess' may earn money one day! Big problem is how to put it into a saleable article - bigger problem is to sell it!!

  5. WOW! I never thought that others had this problem! My husband hates my mess with a vengeance! I tell him that this 'mess' may earn money one day! Big problem is how to put it into a saleable article - bigger problem is to sell it!!

  6. Marje,

    Valid points here. Thanks so much for the feedback and for your time. :-)

  7. Marje:
    Granted, we all face the problems you mention. Perhaps you can invest in a few colored file folders that will assuage your husband and organize your "mess"--red for red-hot ideas,green for evergreen possibilities, brown for ideas that you don't yet want to discard but may eventually be flushable.


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