TAKEAWAY: Ideas are Plentiful, the Key to Success is Knowing Which Ideas to Pursue, and When to Move On from an Idea that Isn’t Taking Flight
Pulitzer-Prize winning author Michael Chabon stepped to the podium, facing an audience of thousands of writers. I knew I’d hear poetic prose and brilliant turns of phrase, but what I didn’t expect was receiving valuable insight on the nature of ideas and creativity. I left the presentation feeling as high as a dreamy child with pockets brimming with treasure after a sunny day of collecting shells on the beach.
Okay, that last line was a bit flowery, but it was my amateurish attempt to capture the elegance of Chabon in his presentation earlier this year at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Annual Conference in Denver.
Chabon shared his wisdom on ideas and the creative process, but he also made clear that he wasn’t an artist who created art merely for the sake of it. “I want to make art that I can sell for cash money,” he said to appreciative laughter and applause.
He said his presentation would be a Q&A, but then proceeded to ask all the questions himself, questions he is asked repeatedly, questions he has come to find a wee bit annoying.
His favorite/not-favorite question? “Where do you get your ideas?”
His response was to the point. Ideas, he said, are plentiful, if you open yourself to possibility. His metaphor was that if an idea is symbolized by a light bulb, he is constantly walking through rooms brimming with bulbs, all hanging from the ceiling at eye level, all bright and intoxicating.
Chabon has no problem finding ideas. His challenge is discerning which of these beaming lights is the one to dedicate the next several years of his life to pursuing.
As a writer who has produced award-winning novels, novellas, short stories and essays, Chabon has done a stellar job of picking not only the right ideas, but ones with variety. He has also learned which should occupy a lot of his time and which are better suited to a quick take.
The hardest lesson he’s learned, and is still learning, is when to walk away from an idea.
He said that when he does finally choose an idea to devote himself to, he quickly becomes enamored with it. The idea is the greatest idea ever. The idea will be the one to take him to another level of creative accomplishment.
But that isn’t always the case. A stubborn man, Chabon will keep working an idea, trying new routes, new avenues to making the idea come alive. But, sometimes, there is no avenue that will bring that shiny beacon of light from potential to actual.
Did he offer insight on how to choose the right idea, or when to walk away from an idea that isn’t coming to fruition. No. He said he still hasn’t mastered those tricks himself.
But he emphasized that all creatives must recognize the variety and choice of ideas before them, and must also know that not every one chosen should have been chosen.
I remind myself of these lessons daily. When in that ballroom, I was just beginning to plan my trip across the country to interview creatives of all stripes. I wanted to hear their stories, but the trip itself was an idea I was trying to take to fruition. The trip is now complete but I’m still exploring, trying to find the right path to fully realize what the trip meant to me, and what it can mean for all creatives as a source of inspiration.