How to Capture – and Expand – Your Best Creative Ideas

“An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself” (Charles Dickens)

It’s considered trite to open a piece of writing with a quote.  

But in my defence, that particular one is up there – literally, seeing as it’s pinned to the wall in my office – with my favourites.

Just as you won’t understand a ghost’s intentions when you first clap eyes on one (is it there to scare you, warn of your impending demise, or just saying a friendly hello?) it’s often hard to know at first glance whether or not a creative idea is actually good.

If you’re thinking, “but I don’t have any creative ideas!”, you’re wrong.  

You’ve just become an expert at dismissing them, possibly because you can’t immediately see where they’ll lead, and possibly because you haven’t recognised them as creative ideas.

The author Elizabeth Gilbert has an interesting take on this.  In Big Magic, her book about living a creative life, she says: “When an idea thinks it has found somebody – say, you – who might be able to bring it into the world, the idea will pay you a visit. It will try to get your attention. 

Mostly, you will not notice. This is likely because you’re so consumed by your own dramas, anxieties, distractions, insecurities, and duties that you aren’t receptive to inspiration.”

On the flip side, you might have so many creative ideas that you lose all track of them.  They flit in and out of your mind like dreams, and just like dreams, you’re convinced you’ll naturally remember the good ones.  

But you don’t, do you?

That’s why my premier idea-capturing kit consists of…

(drum roll please)

…a notebook and pen.

Yes, that’s it.

But buy a few if you have to, because you’re going to need a trusty notebook and pen with you at all times.  I’ve got six notebooks on my desk, one in my bag, one by my bed, and one on the coffee table in my front room.  

You just never know when an idea is going to float in through the window, so you’ve got to be ready.

“Ah, but what about those ideas that tap you on the shoulder while you’re doing the washing up?” those Luddites without dishwashers (I am one) might ask.  

That’s easy… just tell Siri or Alexa to open a voice memo, and speak your idea, instead.

Other idea-capturing methods include setting up a dedicated folder in Word.  When something occurs to you, open a new document, write a quick sentence, then save it to your folder.  

OK, so now you’re all fired up with creative ideas here, there, and everywhere.  

But that doesn’t change the original ‘ghost’ issue of understanding whether or not they’re any good, does it?  

One way to get around this is by leaving your ideas to what Stephen King refers to as the “boys in the basement.”  

That’s his term for your unconscious mind, which is always whirring away in the background.  

Unlike delegating tasks at work, the process is simple; once you’ve captured your idea in writing or speech, you can trust that the “boys” will help you come up with ways to expand on it 

(Yes, I could say “girls”, but then the term loses its lovely alliterative quality.  “Girls in the garage/garden/garret/on the ground floor” don’t have the quite same resonance, but I remain open to suggestions.)

From my own experience, 99% of the time they will help you.  It’s why I always leave a page of blank space in my notebook after scribbling down an idea.  I know there will be more to come.

Your own “boys in the basement” might be a bit workshy at first, especially if all you’ve allowed them to do is the occasional bit of filing.  But if you’re gentle with them, and you give them enough time to learn, they’ll get there.

And so will you.

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