Writing

The Myth Called “Running Out of Ideas”

I was astounded when several close friends told me I would eventually “run out of ideas” and have to quit blogging. They each said it independently, and it applied not just to me, but to every blogger at Mythcreants. If this notion of idea scarcity doesn’t sound strange to you, let me demonstrate by making a few statements that I consider equally nonsensical:

“There’s no internet service at my beach cabin, so before I go on vacation, I’m going to download the web onto my hard drive.”

“As of today, I’ve been through every experience life has to offer. Nothing can surprise me anymore.”

“Sometimes I worry that time will finish at just the wrong moment, leaving me sitting on the toilet eternally.”

All of these statements have the same problem: they treat something infinite* as though it could end at any moment. The notion that someone will “run out of ideas” is no different. Ideas are infinite. There will always be more, waiting to be written.

Of course, my friends didn’t literally mean that there would be no more ideas in existence to write about. What they probably meant was that I would run out of inspiration.

That’s because writers don’t just grab ideas and put them into words. A writer’s job looks more like this:

  1. Consume an assortment of facts and concepts.
  2. Digest them in their heads.
  3. Sort and shape them into stories, articles, poems and other works.
  4. Put those works into words.
  5. Grind and churn the words until they’re smooth.
  6. Feed the words to the baby birds in their audience.

Periodically, our minds complete the first three steps without conscious effort from us. We call this inspiration. Even if we don’t write, unused inspiration slowly fills up a box in our heads, until it feels like it’s bursting. If you write regularly, you may take things out of that box faster than it’s being filled. After a while, many writers find themselves staring at this:

If this is what you’re looking at right now, you’re facing the challenge that separates professional-level writers from hobbyists. Many hobbyists who would like to write more can’t make the leap because they are waiting for inspiration to fill the empty box for them. If you ever encounter a professional writer who runs on inspiration alone, take a picture, because you’ve just met Bigfoot. Even fiction writers with more story ideas than they could ever write will need to fill in scenes that inspiration hasn’t provided.

If you think the bottom of the box is an insurmountable barrier, you should know something: I “ran out of ideas” about a year ago, right after I started blogging. Most weeks, there’s nothing in the box. Then I do what every professional writer has learned to do – I fill it on command, when I need it.

How is it done? With a little googling, you’ll find lots of tips on finding ideas when they’re MIA. But since you’re already here, I’ll tell you how I do it:

  • Brainstorming: It seems obvious, right? That’s because it is. But the method of brainstorming can make a big difference. I find that if I start forcing myself to actually put down ideas, no matter how ridiculous they are, they get better and better until they start to sound pretty good. I hear other writers benefit from free writing – devoting time to writing down whatever comes to their mind on a regular basis.
  • Reading things: Groundbreaking, I know. But you can’t get to step 3 without step 1. Your mind requires fuel, and there’s no faster way to get it. I try to read lots of things that are similar to what I write, and some things that aren’t. Strangely, I get the most mileage out of works I think are terrible. There’s nothing like someone doing something wrong on the internet (or in a published book under a big name) to fire up visions of how it might be done right.
  • Sensory experiences: For my fiction writing, there’s nothing so valuable as music. Other writers walk around outside and watch people, or go visit cool places. Still others look for interesting imagery. These things can evoke intangible feelings that we struggle to put words to, and that struggle is often very productive.

Everyone is different. Maybe these will work for you, maybe they won’t. But one thing is important: don’t subscribe to the fatalistic notion that people simply “run out of ideas.” There are infinitely more ideas than you could ever use in your lifetime. The hard part is choosing one.

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Comments

  1. Hunter_Wolf

    Funny thing though is that i sort of have the opposite case, i have way too many ideas and story concepts, there is a mass of about 8-10 ideas in my head that keep expanding, shifting and changing over time.

    While that sounds nice and all my major problem is my inability to commit to one of those ideas and ignore the others until that idea matures and reaches full frutition, even after i learned to drop ideas that are going nowhere or aren’t relevant anymore (or when i find out someone did something so similar with an idea i had but way better than i ever hoped to do it) it’s still a problem that annoys me a lot.

    I’d be working on a draft for one story idea and suddenly a plot thread or character from another story idea i had keeps nagging me to fix them or update them and i can’t focus on the current one i’m working on anymore.

    That’s one side of the problem, then there is also the case when i feel some of my ideas became too bloated or way bigger than i intended in terms of scope, making it harder to progress without complete total dedication (which like i pointed above is hard to come by), so that results in me thinking “hmmm … maybe i should brainstorm, come up with a totally new but small scale concept, turn it into a draft and push forward fast enough before getting distracted by something else”, alas that never actually turns out the way i intend it to be, eithet the idea keeps growing until it becomes bloated like its older brethren (and i mentally handshake it with a nervous smile as if saying “welcome, er .. find a seat next to your brothers and sisters”) or i feel it’s just too shallow to turn into an interesting draft and lose interest dropping it completely and going back to juggling my older 8-10 ideas.

    It feels almost like going in a loop, while those story ideas keep growing and changing through researching, practice and brainstorming they still do feel like they are stuck in ideas limbo (where concepts go to get stuck), what’s the point of growing if you are never going to reach fruition, it’s like a baby that keeps growing size-wise but never actually matures at all so you end up with a giant baby that’s really intimidating and a huge burden and you can do nothing about it (no that’s not Time Baby i’m talking about here).

    Ahm, now my question is, did you ever deal with something like this before? And are there any tips to overcome this oversaturation creative hurdle?

    • Chris Winkle

      I indeed have more story ideas than I could ever write, and I can get distracted by random inspiration. Whenever something about a story occurs to me, I open a word document and write out all the stuff that just happened in my head so I don’t lose it. But as soon as it’s recorded, I set it aside and go back to working on the thing I committed to. Writing it down also helps me find closure so it distracts me less.

      With bloat, my recommendation is to take what you think is the first chapter and focus hard on just that. If it expands a lot, make plot changes that increase the sense of closure at the end, so it functions better as a stand alone story, even if you want to leave room for sequels. If you try that, it might keep you from restarting your loop. I also have a blog post on turning concepts into stories coming out in a couple weeks, that might help you make simpler stories you’re still interested in.

      Ultimately, deep emotional attachment is what keeps me committed to a story. Other stories might catch my fancy, but that emotional component will keep me coming back. I have a blog post on that, I suspect you’ve already read it, but in case not: https://mythcreants.com/blog/staying-interested-in-your-work/

      Creative processes are very unique to the individual, you might need to do a lot of experimentation to find something that works for you.

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