Ideas are Plentiful, Choosing is the Key

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.

14 thoughts on “Ideas are Plentiful, Choosing is the Key

  1. Pingback: Where Do You Get Your Ideas? « The Artist's Road

  2. Ideas are plentiful, yes. But in the realm of ideas it takes practice to tell a flowering cherry tree from a dead bush.

    Although this analogy is not meant to define absolutes: one writer’s dead bush is another’s cherry tree.

    I get my ideas from the rich substratum of my childhood, my contact with the natural world and from the people I meet. I grew up around cats and dogs (entire herds of them) and observed them a lot. My parents took me on mountain hikes a lot, and to museums as well.
    So my upbringing has definitely had an influence.
    Two of my aunts have fine arts degrees and my mother majored in Art History. Artistic pursuits were never frowned upon or considered invalid in the family. In fact they were encouraged.

    Painting is a great source of inspiration for me — when I need symbols, I turn to painting. My mother likes French Symbolist art ( ) and Art Nouveau – especially Alfons Mucha – and there was this huge print of his Four Seasons in the apartment I grew up in. The point being that my mind matured as I was surrounded by powerful images I did not fully understand.

    For a couple of days now I have been poring over Kevin Kelly’s website. The Technium section is chock-full of outrageous ideas. Check it out.

    If you ever find yourself suffering from writer’s block, it won’t be for a lack of stuff to write about.


    1. Thanks for your insights here. What spoke to me about Chabon — who is about as accomplished as one can get as a creative writer — is that he freely admitted that he constantly thinks these ideas are flowering cherry trees. Sometimes they’re dead bushes at the start and he doesn’t see that, and sometimes they die while he’s watering them and he doesn’t immediately see that.

      That is a problem I’ve had as a writer — not a lack of ideas, but an understanding of which to pursue, which to stick with, and which to return to when my mastery of craft is better able to tackle it.


  3. Patrick, I love Chabon’s light bulb metaphor that you’ve shared here — mainly because my experience with those “light bulbs” is so very different!

    For me, getting ideas is like wandering from room to room in a ginormous mansion. Sometimes, there’s a bright light that draws me to a particular room. I go in and follow that one light to wherever it leads me. When I’m finished in that room, I leave it and go on to the next bright light.

    Some lights are dimmer than others — so I know not to enter those rooms until later (i.e. I put those ideas aside for the time being). Sometimes, a light is bright enough to illuminate a room across the hall. But there’s no light burning in that room, so I know not to enter it.

    Unless I’m feeling particularly adventuresome and want to challenge whatever might be lurking in the darkness. ; )

    As far as the source of ideas, it depends on what medium I’m working in. Most of my ideas for novels come from my dreams. (I dream storylines in vivid color and detail.) If I’m writing poetry, inspiration usually comes from an event in my life, a relationship obstacle, or an observation. When I oil paint, inspiration comes from pretty much anything I experience with my senses.

    Thanks for inspiring these thoughts, Patrick. I didn’t realize I had this much to say on the topic. ; )


    1. Wow, Courtney, thanks for this, you did have a lot to say, and very poetically.

      I like your mansion description and am going to reflect on that. To build on the comment I just left above, for me the ones I put aside are ones where I feel I don’t have enough tools yet to do them justices, so if they are dim (in your metaphor) it’s incumbent upon me to figure out how to get them to be brighter. The ones already bright are ready for me to explore.


        1. Hi Courtney, I did indeed miss this. You posted it while I was at my MFA residency, which was like being in an isolation tank!

          It’s really a beautiful post, a great launch off of Chabon’s imagery. I particularly like this line: “If there’s potential for the light of idea to dispel the darkness, then it’s worth it to me to stay in that dark room and coax the light into it.”

          As I just noted on your site, I’m so glad his words and this post inspired you!


  4. Pingback: Court Can Write − Writer, Screw in the Light Bulb Already!

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