The Burden of the Better Idea

Unsolicited Opinions / Friday, March 2nd, 2018

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, easily my favorite book on creativity, she talks about ideas: “Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will…Ideas spend eternity swirling around us, searching for available and willing human partners.”

I resonated with this immediately when I read it, because I’ve always felt like when I receive an inspiration for a story or a book, it doesn’t come from me at all. Like, not in the slightest does it belong to me. I refer to the idea-givers vaguely and superstitiously as the Gods of Writing (shut up), and they often make things difficult.

For example, consider the following situation:

You’ve been working on a project for a couple months. Maybe you’re like me and keep yourself on a borderline obsessive writing schedule, so you’re more than a few chapters in. If it’s an average length novel, you might even be a third or half of the way through the story, and you’re seeing it come together nicely.

The key word here is “nice,” which as I’ve harped on before, is an utter nonsense word. You go to this work with sort of a trudging feeling, like you just have to finish it because it’s something you’re started. Like a robot-scientist with shaky morals (I haven’t read a lot of sci-fi lately: is “robot-scientist” still the preferred nomenclature for a scientist who makes robots?), you’ve created something sentient. And you can’t abandon it merely because it’s leaving you vaguely cold and frustrated. There is much force in duty. It’s why we suffered through so many of those last episodes of Lost: WE’VE PUT IN SO MUCH TIME.

So anyway, you’re uninspired by this work, but you made a big fuss about the concept at first, and now your sister, the only person who reads what you write, is expecting you to come up with something. So you already have all those intense public expectations weighing you down (lol). More importantly and accurately, you feel a strange and preternatural sense of responsibility for the ideas you’ve been gifted by the Gods of writing.

(“They came to me! They entrusted them to me,” you shout, while others in the room turn their faces away from the spectacle as though your delusions are contagious.)

Anyway, one day as you’re writing, the clouds part just a little bit and you are granted (presumably by those selfsame God of writing, weary of your incompetence) a ray of light: fresh insight into your story. You’ll hear a voice in your head, something along the lines of, “Well they don’t know she’s dead until the middle of the book, obviously.

Leaving you to be like, “Oh, right. For this particular story arc, this frees up a lot of space and time for tension and makes all of the characters’ motivations 500% more believable.”

There’s definitely a gift in all this, but it’s a pea-sized diamond wrapped up in layers of shit paper, let me tell you, because the new realization means that everything you’ve written up to this point is basically rubbish. Your characters can remain, patiently reassembling themselves into new situations to adjust to your newest whims, but you have to go in there and move them around and they’ve collected so much weight by now, like marble blocks waiting to be chiseled and…no.

When this happens, I almost say no. Like, fine, if that’s the way it has to be, then I’ll just stop writing. I’ll scrap everything I have created, like the evil robot-scientist I truly am, and just live instead with the shining vision of what might have been if I’d followed this latest and most uncalled-for inspiration.

This is something that’s happened to me multiple times: I’ve been gifted the creative insight necessary to improve on my story arc or character development, but instead of following that lead, I give up. And it’s a full surrender, because now obviously the previous work, unimproved, is useless to me. I can’t keep writing it, knowing how much better it could be. So if I’m unwilling to re-write, the project is abandoned.

Duty crumbles at this point, and you’re like, “Shit, if watching Lost had required this much effort, and I knew I’d have to RE-WATCH LITERALLY THE WHOLE THING afterwards, then I never would have made it past season 2.”

Sense of duty diminished, you abandon your project.


Don’t give up when you are burdened with the better idea. It’s a total gift, a boon from the Gods who’ve seen you floundering in mediocrity with this lackluster project and whether it’s pity they’ve taken or even, Jesus, a liking to you, don’t cast the gift aside.

Forget what you’ve written before. Don’t throw it away necessarily; there could be some gems in there, or at least some salvageable scrap metal.

I’m telling you all of this from my pedestal, from my Palace of Relative Anonymity but here’s my confession: My Better Idea occurred to me two months ago, and I haven’t taken necessary steps to go work on it. I have been ignoring that project, and working on other things. In fact, this blog post is my only acknowledgment to myself that I’ve been shirking on the work that I know needs to be done. Sharing it with you, getting all of that public accountability out of the way, makes me feel like I have to go back. I have to respect that sometimes ideas have a sentient presence of their own, and I can’t just abandon my little idea-robots to flounder and rust and die (yeah, I know it’s bad, but I’m sticking with the robot-scientist analogy. Also, I googled it, and “robot-scientist” actually means, like, a robot who’s a scientist. Not a scientist who makes robots. Just so you know that I know.)

So there you go: the thriller-style novel that I’m working on requires a completely different progression, and hence some radically changed chapters, in order to make any sense.

What’s yours? Did you stop something in the middle because you got a better idea? Did you just finish the story, crappy or not? How did that work for you? Did you go for it?

Tell me in the comments below, okay bye.


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