Editor’s note: this post was first published in 2011 on Storyfix.
Did you get the memo?
Apparently, humanity has run out of new ideas.
As Americans we’ve become inundated with sequels, and prequels, and sequels to prequels, and spin-offs, and remakes, and “reality shows” and it seems like today’s mainstream media is sending us a clear message:
“Hey, we tried looking for them, but there’s not a single original idea out there to be found! So, here: enjoy this steaming pile of recycled dog crap that looks like a burrito, but we’re gonna call it a ‘wrap’ so that you think it’s an original product!”
First of all, a wrap IS a burrito that for some reason is filled with ham and cheese. (Which, by the way, is soooo gross.) A burrito isn’t a new product at all!
Second of all, the truth is that there ARE tons of original ideas out there, ripe for our picking.
So, why do we keep getting the message that the world is running out of ideas and its running out of them fast?
The answer is a pretty obvious: developing an original idea requires a lot of time, effort, and courage–and not everyone is willing to put forth that amount of energy.
Original Ideas Require That You Take BIG RISKS
First of all, trying out a brand new idea is risky. You have no standard of measurement. You have no way of knowing how people will react to your idea. You have no clue whether your idea will be successful or whether it will bomb big time.
Because there is so much risk involved with a new idea, it makes complete sense that most people would rather lie and say they’ve run out of original ideas, than admit the truth: that they have several original ideas but they’re way too afraid to try them out because of the high risks involved.
Original Ideas Are NOT EASILY VISIBLE
First of all, you need to pay real close attention to the world around you in order to catch really great, original ideas. You have to be able to see things most people can’t (or don’t want to) see. Writers know that there is something in everything to write about–you can call it a writer’s “sixth sense.” A real writer will stop everything they’re doing just to listen very closely to what others are misinterpreting as white noise.
Real writers won’t discriminate against sources either. They know an original idea can come from their grandmother, as much as it can come from their boss. For a writer who listens closely, an original story can come from a neighbor and his girlfriend as they carry their fight into the middle of the street; or, from the dirty, stray dog that sprints beside them as they take their morning jog. All of this may not seem crucial or pertinent to most people, but, for a writer who listens, these moments carry new, original ideas tucked underneath the surface.
Original Ideas Require INTENSIVE RESEARCH
For instance: the novel I am currently writing is based on Mayan and Aztec mythology. Now, in order to really delve deep into this culture, I took a class on Mesoamerican archeology. I read all the books on the subject and, yes, I traveled to Mexico City and witnessed the remnants of that ancient civilization first hand.
The knowledge I gained through this whole process was priceless, but it was knowledge that was only gained through my intensive research.
When you do your research, you can uncover ideas that most people are too lazy to discover. This is why explorers are more likely to find buried treasure by diving into the depths of uncharted oceans all over the world than by sitting at home and doing a quick Google Search for “pirate booty.”
What people won’t tell you is that original ideas don’t have “treasure maps” to help you find them. They are NOT a “Google search” away. Original ideas are located in the places that are the hardest to get to, where only the most determined and hardworking treasure hunters are willing to reach.
Original Ideas Require that You Be VULNERABLE
You know why? Because the points of vulnerability in every human being are the places where the vast majority of people do not want to explore. In those vulnerable spots of humanity, you will find vast stretches of original, unexplored territory.
There are still islands in the human heart that have not been mapped, blank slates in the human spirit that have not been filled, and wrinkled fabric in the human mind that has not yet been ironed out.
But all of this requires you to be open, and being open means you have to be vulnerable–vulnerable to failure, vulnerable to rejection, and vulnerable to misunderstanding.
I have experienced all three of these in my writing career:
I wrote and produced an original one-man show almost four years ago, and because I acted in it, wrote it, and produced it, I was incredibly vulnerable to attack. Once the show made its debut, I was bit in the heart by rejection. I closed myself off artistically for three years because of the rejection, criticism, and misunderstanding that resulted after presenting my original work to the public.
After the show ended, I wrote a poem that I shared with my writing mentor, and in that poem I vowed not to write for anyone else but myself ever again. My mentor thought I was just having a bad day, but I was serious. I was convinced at the time that my original writing had no right to be attacked, criticized, or worst of all, misunderstood.
But the truth was, whether my original work was criticized, misunderstood, or attacked was beside the point. In fact, it was really none of my business.
Almost four years later, I now understand the truth: it was I who had no right to stop producing original work, despite some of the negative feedback I had received.
Rejection, personal attacks, criticism, gross misunderstandings are just part of the work that we writers do. Sure, we can retreat from all of the unfairness we might experience by sticking to what is safe. But then we would never allow ourselves to try anything new.
The Bottom Line
“You’re telling me I have to take risks, listen all the time, work really hard, and open myself up to rejection, criticism, failure and misunderstanding in order to be original?”
This is why most original ideas don’t get claimed. Most people don’t want to take risks (they want to play it safe), they don’t want to listen all the time (they want to hear themselves talk), they don’t want to do all the hard work (they want to write a novel and publish it in two weeks), and the last thing they want to do is be vulnerable (they’re too afraid of criticism and failure).
If you are not willing to take risks, listen, work hard, and be vulnerable then that’s fine by me, but don’t tell me the lie that you keep telling everyone else: that you’ve run out of ideas.
Because it isn’t true.
Look at the list above and see what it takes to find an original idea, then be honest with yourself.
Realize that you have not run out of original ideas, you have just run out of the courage to pursue the ideas that are really worth your time.
You can keep calling your wanna-be burrito a “wrap,” but meanwhile, I’ll be over here, cooking up something new.
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