The sexy place is the actual writing.
Almost every time that I go to a school visit and am asked questions or when I’m interviewed by newspapers, I get asked two things:
- Where do you get so much energy?
- Where do you get your ideas?
I don’t actually think of myself as having a ton of energy. Like right now, it’s 7:06 a.m. and I’ve been up since 5. I went to bed around 11. I’m a bit tired actually, and no, I don’t have any coffee or even tea in my system yet. I know! I know! You’re probably thinking what half of the people ask me in public events:
- How are you so weird/quirky? Does your mind really work like that?
Just kidding—sort of.
This post isn’t actually about productivity or weirdness. It’s about ideas.
Chuck Wendig recently had a post about AI where he wrote about how so many of us think that ideas are the holy grail of writing and all creativity. People are always asking:
- Where do you get your ideas?
- How do you know an idea is a good one?
- How do you not lose your ideas?
Ideas are cheap. They are the extras that die on the street while the superheroes battle above them. Ideas are often barely differentiated in the scene—just a mass of them crumpled by falling cars and buildings and laser blasts.
That’s the thing.
Writing and art isn’t necessarily about the ideas. Writing and art are about the craft that sculpts that idea into a story or an art piece or a song that connects to other humans on an emotional level.
Wendig writes on his blog,
“But again, the idea is a seed, that’s it. Ideas are certainly useful, but only so far. A good idea will not be saved by poor execution, but a bad idea can be saved by excellent execution. Even simple, pedestrian ideas can be made sublime in the hands of a powerful craftsman or artist. Not every idea needs to be revolutionary. Every idea needn’t be that original — I don’t mean to suggest the plagiarism is the way to go, I only mean in the general sense, it’s very difficult (and potentially impossible) to think of a truly original story idea that hasn’t in some form been told before. The originality in a narrative comes from you, the author, the artist. The originality comes out in the execution.”
That’s the magic of being a human and not being AI when you create art. The process is where the art becomes alive, where the story becomes real, where the unexpected (rather than the program) creates spark and light and joy and beauty.
AI can’t do that. At least not yet.
Part of that is about flow.
A long time ago—back in the 1980s—this guy Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was studying happiness. He gave people pagers. Remember this was in the 1980s. Then he and his research assistants would send the people messages at random times and ask how they were doing, feeling, what they were doing, etc. It sounds a bit like when your mom texts you, honestly.
And he discovered flow. People were happy when they were super engaged in the task they were doing. People weren’t happy when they were doing nothing. They were happy when they were involved in something. Playing soccer. Playing music. Creating art. Solving a problem.
Minds were blown.
When people were in the ‘flow,’ they forgot about time, space, all the other detritus in their lives. They were focused on the now, on what they were doing. What they were doing might be writing, sports, hanging out with other humans, art, and so on… But for them the involvement was so intense that they became engaged and absorbed into it and were happy.
That might happen if you’re a reader and into reading a great book.
That might happen if you’re a painter and created something spectacular on the canvas.
The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” – (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
FLOW IS WHERE THE UNEXPECTED HAPPENS, THE EPIPHANIES, THE ART
Lincoln Michel writes on his blog,
“The unnecessary is most necessary part of art. Art is exactly the place to let your eye linger on what fascinates it. Art isn’t an SEO optimized app or a rubric for overworked teachers to grade five-paragraph essays. Art is exactly the space—perhaps the last space left—where we can indulge, explore, and expand ourselves. If we can’t be weird, extraneous, over-the-top, discursive, and hedonistic in our art, where can we be?”
So, as a writer, flow and process, the actual act of writing your story is far more important and interesting that the original idea. What it is that happens in our minds that makes those little epiphanies, the moments where we are swept up in the flow—in the act of creating—and our prefrontal cortexes are firing on all cylinders and heading into warp drive. That’s what’s interesting.
Ideas happen everywhere. Looking at other art. Reading a book. Living a life. But process and art and writing? That is where you turn the idea into something else—something that breathes in a way that AI can’t do yet or even in a way that other people can’t do yet because it requires putting in the work so that you can get those gorgeous, beautiful, holy-poop moments.
And those moments? They’re pretty addictive.
As Wendig writes, “It’s just idea, small-i. You’re not done when you have an idea. You’ve barely even begun. The wonder is in what comes after. The wonder is in the work.”
And that’s what I wish more people talked about, not idea generators or where the ideas come from initially, but how they are shaped and formed to create a story that carries people along to somewhere new and magical, to somewhere that they might create a new and magical story from ideas that were germinated in yours. How cool is that?