Plenty of non-artists have this problem, but every artist I know has this problem: we have too much stuff. I'm not talking about those stacks of aging Fantastic Four comic books that you refuse to give up. I'm not talking about those favorite t-shirts you should have tossed years ago. I'm not even talking about your own works in progress. I'm talking about the raw, random, chaotic material that you're spewing out, all the time, before it's found its way into new projects.
What happens to all of the ideas, images, notes, scribblings, sketches, and inspirational bric a brac we generate in our creative lives? It piles up. Mounds and mounds of it accumulate, on the sides of our desks, on night stands, on the pads of paper we keep on kitchen counters, in the voice memos we frantically dictate to ourselves as we drive down the highway, promising ourselves we'll organize later, somewhere safer, somewhere smarter. This is the raw material from which we refine our most valuable work. This is the sugar cane for our rum. But in the great raw value of these unrefined scraps, the endlessly growing mass threatens to drown us. Beautiful sirens, these ideas pull us over the rails of our safe boats into churning waters of creative abandon. Keeping track is a fools errand, and yet without a way to keep track, there can never be a process for capturing inspiration. The process is like trying to keep track of a handful of valuable, rare, even magical leaves from a large healthy tree as it erupts year after year into cascades of new growth. The tree sends thousands and thousands of leaves tumbling to the ground. What happens to most? You know already: they turn brown, they they crack, turn to dust, disappear.
But once in a great while, a seed flies away in the mouth of a bird, or finds itself washed down slope in a rivulet of rain, where it takes root and catches the sun. If you make things for a living, you live, you breathe, your heart beats faster for this moment.
What I wish the universe would send me is a omnipresent creative valet, an assistant who's sole reason for existence would be to police all of the leptons, positrons, neutrinos, and rare, rare Higgs Bosons that skitter away from me all day long. Like those cascades of mostly irrelevant subatomic particles, like those rare and wonderful leaves from my tree, I'm fully aware that most are pure junk, creative flotsam ejected randomly as things collide, combine, cascade, and carom into the void. Yet even as I write this harsh, honest self assessment, I know that once in a great while…there's something I want to save and nurture.
Alas, I have no such cosmic valet. What to do?
People confront this problem in different ways. Some don't confront it at all. The thing about artists is that they're much more invested, compelled even, by the act of creating then they are in the act of archiving. This creates a classic library problem. A book or a database entry containing the secrets of eternal youth is useless if it's not easily found in the library. An idea without an index does not exist.
I have yet to find a trick that works perfectly. But that's not to say I don't have strategies. My number one strategy is to simplify my systems. Handwritten notes must ultimately find themselves into one single place in my office. The path to that messy, massive pile may be tortuous, but the ultimate destination does not change. My digital notes are broken into discrete directories, including projects that already have specific names, random ideas without further context, poems, books, screenplays, client projects, ideas for essays (like this one), and long duration research initiatives for indistinct goals. (Ugh! It's always a battle!)
Yes, I have my software tools, like Evernote and Stickies and all sorts of other apps and packages, and yes, they help me capture stuff to some extent. But there's no perfect solution. Having too many tools is a great way to acquire a new tool management problem. What's more, but a great technical solution that captures everything but delivers a hard-to-navigate system for downstream search and retreival is no solution at all.
It's interesting that this challenge is often one thing for artists, and totally different for the people with whom they live. Creatives generally do not have to struggle to generate material; they struggle to make sense of the material they create. Everyone else either learns to recognize the strange, sometimes obsessive ticks we have trying to capture our mental storms or they begin to regard us as peculiar, sometimes mildly pitiable oddities. (Or both.)
What I find matters most is that the process of personal idea management should not become it's own end point. There must be a middle path. Too much organizational detail curtails powers of perception. It's only unencumbered that we fully experience the world and make new connections. Too little organizational detail relegates us to undisciplined wannabes, flailing around in an ocean of random chatter and scraps.
Ironically, I believe it's this essential, middle way that's most risky, even as it's probably the only choice. While the extremes of organizational rigor may provide clearer signposts about personal goals, a successful creator must simultaneously risk being overwhelmed by rogue waves while also keeping the ship's deck squared away. Too much water washing over us can drown us; too much attention to being ship-shape desiccates all the passion from the journey. It's risky either way.
When the system works, winds whip hard and the spray stings, but ideas cascade, get captured, then coalesce. I've long since given up hope for an easy ride. But come to think of it, I don't think I ever signed on for one.
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