On the myth of "no ideas"
...and what might actually be going on when we think we have nothing to say.
1 | ON THE MYTH OF “NO IDEAS”
Sometimes it can feel like you have no ideas, when the truth is that you actually have too many ideas, all bunched and tangled like the pile of dirty clothes with each sweaty sock separated from its pair, the whole thing an ominous mess that’s pressuring you from within the closet. Deal with this already, says the pile, as you toss another shirt on top. Sometimes you just have to work up the wherewithal to send it all to the laundry machine — call it a wash. See what comes out on the other side of the deep clean.
Sometimes it can feel like you have no ideas, when the truth is that they’re just not ones with substance. Like, I wanted to tell you about this fancy grain-free cereal I got last week that’s supposed to taste like birthday cake, with tiny turmeric- and beet-dyed rainbow sprinkles and all. Lauren found me staring at it in the grocery store, distraught, and I said, “Please tell me that I do not need this birthday cake cereal, because I absolutely do not need this birthday cake cereal,” and she said, “Lemme see it,” and then she tucked it into her own basket and ran away to the checkout aisle as I yelled, “Wait, no, I don’t need it, I really don’t!” Of course I don’t. It’s not anywhere near my birthday — not even my half-birthday. But Lauren is always loving me like that. In the bowl, of course, the sprinkles turned out to be just a few dull-tinted crumbs. The texture was like crunchy air, which is definitely what one should expect from a name like “Power Puffs.” No substance. Anyway, this isn’t actually a story yet, it’s just something that happened, but I bet I could tell a fuller, realer one about the same things — care, sweetness, cravings, hope. There are plenty of ingredients in there; it’s the formation of them that’s off.
Sometimes it can feel like you have no ideas, when the truth is that you’re just not sure where the ideas are headed yet. This afternoon, on my way to the post office, I walked a few blocks behind a stranger who I first noticed because of the thwacking sound their flip-flops made against the sidewalk on this surprisingly balmy San Francisco day. They were cradling a large, lush bouquet of flowers, a whole frothing mix of pinks, three fat dahlias, some of the closed buds bobbing like tiny fists with each thwacking step, and all of it tucked into soft white tissue paper. I wondered who the flowers were for, what they were for, made up all kinds of stories in my mind; maybe it was someone’s birthday, or maybe this bouquet was like my cereal, a frivolous but generous gift. Or maybe the moment was beautiful like a poem that didn’t have to mean anything; it was just a temporary loveliness, before it turned a corner and disappeared.
Sometimes it can feel like you have no ideas, when the truth is that you are tired and you are busy and you are trying to pressure yourself to create something when the other half of your brain is like, Hello, how much longer are you going to let the laundry pile up? (I mean, the actual laundry, not the metaphorical kind.) Sometimes it is just not the time for the ideas, for them to get the attention they deserve. But the ideas are everywhere, they are all around you, they are webbed through your mind, they are just outside your door and wedged within your kitchen cabinets. You don’t not have ideas. I thought I had no ideas today, see?
2 | A QUOTE TO KEEP CLOSE
“As a high schooler, I wrote terrible poems. But when I realized the subject of writing wasn’t far away from me but close by — in the field beyond your house, or the dirt beneath your feet — I understood what a poem could be. I wrote about my parents, my grandparents, my family in Louisiana — people I didn’t see in the books I read. Understanding that literature was about them was probably the biggest leap for me. I didn’t discover some confidence in myself; it was more like, ‘I have to tell this story.’ Doing so was very urgent and important. I stand by that. It was crucial to learn that poetry was about everyday people, places and things. It was finding the extraordinary in the everyday.”
― Kevin Young in a recent issue of T Magazine
3 | A PROMPT YOU CAN USE
Do an idea dump. What’s a weird, memorable thing that happened this week that might contain meaning? What old stories have you never told? What images or sensory input caught your attention today? Grab a pencil and paper, set a timer for just three minutes, and jot down a bulleted list of ideas, however big or miniscule. You don’t have to do anything with them yet. Just see what wants to spill out. When the timer goes off, pick one to write about, without pressure to make it into a narrative arc; just consider it an exercise in voice and style, at least to start.