It’s not ideas that count, it is the execution of those ideas.

Every day of your life, as a creative person, you are going to be assailed by your mind with 227 ideas. (There’s no rhyme or reason for this number, yours is likely to be much higher.) The challenge as an artist is how to capture and filter all the incoming ideas, and make sense of them. Your life’s work depends on the projects you pick and the projects you leave behind. But first we have to deal with the firehose.

I am a victim of this malady, even at 51. My ideas come much faster than I can keep track of them. Remembering that they are merely ideas, I can bat a number of them back into my subconscious without much effort. These are the big ideas, the huge ideas, ideas that I will be working on for years. A rock opera and stage performance, for example. Or one of four screenplays that are haunting my creative imagination, and are in various stages of being written.

But it’s the flow of ideas that’s the issue. How to make sense, to set priorities, and filter out the noise.

FIRST: Your Capture System.

How do you make note of the rush of ideas so that you can evaluate and revisit them later? If you don’t have a capture system, you can’t flush the idea out of your available memory space to make room for new ideas. The little idea (about a color to use in a new painting, for example) will swirl around in your mind, taking up endless cycles of your processing power, while you try to “not forget” and yet “not pay attention” to this little idea. The key is getting the idea down in a form you can recover easily. The better your capture system, the easier it is for you to push the rush of ideas into LATER (painting), LATER (writing), LATER (music) categories for mulling over and processing later.

Your capture system is only as good as the confidence you have in your ability to re-find and recall the energy that was expressed in the idea. As you get better at capturing, your mind will get better at letting go and freeing up space for other ideas, or (as many of us have to tend to) the work you have to do for a living. Your creative life will permeate your working life if you let it. And this is a good thing. Until it’s overwhelming your work life. When you begin calling in sick because you stayed up all night working on a piece, you’d better think about the choices… (Sorry, I’m not trying to be your parent, just a friend along the artist’s path.)

SECOND: The Filtering Process.

When the firehose of ideas is fully in bloom, you will be interrupted frequently by flights of creative fancy. The first step is to remember ideas are just ideas, it’s the execution of the ideas that makes you an artist. The second step is to know when the idea is valuable and needs to be captured, or if the idea is more like a feeling. When your inspiration is a specific detail about a project you are engaged in, the capture should be fairly simple. (Do this-this-and-this next time you open the song file.) When your idea is more meta (or not connected directly to any action, but more of the grand idea variety) you can often toss it back into the supra-consciousness knowing that your big-ideas require thousands of inspirations, and often it’s the gestation of a meta-idea that will become the framework for future projects. These too are easy to jettison out of our real-time memory with the confidence that they will return in more evolved ways later.

Then there are the ideas that are fleeting and hard to capture, hard to nail down, more inspiration and feeling than detail. And these are the ones you need to pay attention to. Entire song compositions can happen for me in the first 5-minutes after I wake up in the morning. If I don’t pay attention those gifts are gone. And it’s often not convenient for me to immediately turn on the recording studio and spend the next 30 minutes trying to capture the essence. You may have similar epiphanies upon waking or in the moments just before you fall asleep. At this point, you have a decision to make. If this “movement” is worth capturing, how can I do it and still maintain my obligations for the day. (Getting my kids to school on-time, for example.)

THIRD: Radical Capture of Ideas

This one takes some creativity. And depending on your medium, you can create your own unique ways of getting at the heart of the idea without actually having to execute on the entire idea in that very moment, which in this case is not feasible.

I’m going to take this idea and parse it into my personal methods based on the creative medium that’s being activated. For me that’s either: music, expository writing, poetry, and visual art.)

Radical Music Capture

  1. Leave yourself a voice mail. Just sing the idea into your voice mail. If you’re traveling, on a bus, or walking down the street on the way to work, don’t miss the little idea that hits you. Call yourself on the phone (or use a recording app on your phone) and leave a message. With music, my melodic ideas are short and simple. But later they can be unpackaged into full songs.
  2. Use your phone to video your guitar or piano playing. Since I’m not all that versed in writing down my musical ideas, I turn on my selfie camera in video mode and record myself playing the guitar pattern. If the guitar has an odd tuning, I can spell that out at the beginning of the video.
  3. Play it into Garageband, or some other quick/simple tool for recording. Sometimes I want a tempo track, or a second part. I can fire up Garageband (Mac) from anywhere (heck I think it’s on my iPad too) and grab a few measures of my idea using the internal mac microphone. Or I can use Garageband to give me a simple tempo or drum pattern and then use my phone to video capture the guitar.

Radical Writing Capture

  1. Evernote is your friend. Since the little app Evernote exists in the cloud, it’s always available on  your phone, your computer, or your tablet. The notes you make on one device are synced to all the devices. YAY.
  2. Remember the outlining technique you learned in school? Outlines rock for getting the structure of a writing piece down before you ever write it. If you can do the outline in 3 minutes and get on with your day, because you have other things that simply have to be done first, go for it. You can write from your outline when you have the time.
  3. Poetry. Yes, this isn’t really a capture device as a radical way to store verbal information in a short period of time. Often when I’m writing a longer piece about some emotional topic, I will also write the same story in a poem. If I can get the essence (for me) down in a poem, the I can return to write the larger piece later. And there’s a lot of cross-over between poetry and music… so there’s that.
  4. Text Editors are your friend. No formatting, just text. Save with a descriptive name and recall it later. (Word is a hog and takes a while to load.)

Radical Visual Art Capture

  1. Sketch. I can design 10 website ideas in 3 minutes with a pen and piece of paper. Get good with your hand skills. Draw out the idea for execution later.
  2. Quick Capture with PPT or other image-driven app. Some of my bigger ideas are better facilitated by a graphic program. And when at my corporate job, occasionally all I had was PPT. So I got really good at sketching out ideas in Powerpoint. Sure, they were not even close to the finished form that I wanted, but the idea was captured and I could let it go, knowing that I could return to my actual canvas or drawing pad later to fully realize the idea.
  3. Take a picture or screen grab of what you were looking at when the inspiration came to you. A lot of artistic work is derivative, don’t be ashamed of that. We’re all “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

You’ve got to listen and tune into the rush of ideas, but you cannot let them overwhelm you. This is a hard trick. The pull is strong, for me, to drop into musician mode and ignore all the other modes that are required of me (dad, worker, boyfriend). But I can use various capture and filter techniques to grab the incoming ideas and put them in my capture system. Later I can map out a plan for them to become works of art, or just one of the 277 ideas that shot through me today.

Just keep going.

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John McElhenney
@jmacofearth (also seen on Google+: jmacofearth)
permalink: http://uber.la/2014/10/get-into-your-mess/

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