Wednesday, August 16, 2006

When Ideas Die

The blog post had been sitting around since last week, and I had gone to work on the article about three or four times already, adding a few more sentences each session. After writing about fiftysomething words tonight, however, I finally realized that it just wasn't going to work.

No, I didn't delete it yet. It's still sitting among my drafts right now, waiting for a knight in shining armor to come and garb it in stellar white. Essays have dreams too, you know.

I don't suppose that anybody knows why ideas die. Sometimes they die as early as the original point of conception ("Ooooh, how about a story that puts together cyborgs and zombies? Naaaah, that's stupid."), sometimes they die as late as the final product ("I finally finished the whole novel... and it reads like five hundred pages of crap."), and sometimes they crash into one of the innumerable opportunities in between. It's a rare idea that actually survives the entire creative process, right down to the scrutiny of the audience.

What's strange is that the process usually doesn't discriminate. You could probably conceptualize a really good idea, a really bad idea, and a really ugly idea at the same time, and anyone would offer even odds on their survival. But then again, the quality of any idea is pretty subjective to begin with, so worrying about them probably isn't worth the effort anyway.

That's one of the things that amateur writers have to realize, I think: There are no "good", "bad", or even "ugly" ideas to start with. The quality of an idea will eventually depend on exactly how well you execute it.

I've held a certain viewpoint on the matter for quite some time now: Maybe ideas die because, deep down inside, they're really "bad" ideas. They pop up inside your head, encourage you to work on them for any amount of time, and then suddenly leave you holding the ball with nothing to show for your effort. In such cases, there's nothing you can do but simply move on and hope that the next idea you have turns out to be a good one.

When one considers that there are no "bad" ideas, however, it throws a monkey wrench into the workings. If the idea isn't "bad" by itself, then you can't certainly blame its quality for the failure of the product. The only thing you can possibly saddle with fault is the execution -- in a sense, all that we know is that it's time to stop what we're doing, wipe the slate clean, and start over.

This, I think, explains why it's relatively easy to find old ideas, dust them off, and put them to good use again. Even if the original execution left a lot to be desired, there's always the chance that we could improve on our first efforts. And even if the second attempt doesn't turn out so well, then it's possible that the third time's the charm, and so forth.

Ideas are remarkably durable, I think. This perception places a lot of emphasis on the approach, as opposed to the root concept. It not only tells us that we can attempt to produce different treatments of the same idea, but also that eventually one of them will turn out effective enough for our tastes.

So the title of this post is actually a lie. It's not the idea that dies in this case; it's the execution that seems useless or ineffective. I'm not deleting my rejected article because the idea didn't seem to work the first time; I'm keeping it because it might provide some useful reference when I finally come up with an alternative approach.

One idea, multiple executions. Some of those treatments will probably turn out bad, while others will probably turn out better than expected. What's probably important in this case is that we keep hacking away at it until we come up with something that satisfies our own perceptions.

No, the idea hasn't quite died yet. There's the possibility that it might die in the future, but to be perfectly honest, I don't remember ever seeing any one idea shuffle off this mortal coil. For all we know, they're all just standing in line somewhere, waiting for us to get out of bed and start writing them up.

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