Brainstorming and the Throwaway Idea

Buckle up, kids, I’ve found a topic I’m going to get really intense about again. I’ve been writing a lot of more personal stuff lately, but today we’re gonna dive back into the writing chatter.

I was having a conversation with a friend today – yes, this is one of those posts that I am writing basically immediately after having the idea – about the creative process. The Oatmeal series about creativity, but particularly the one about brainstorming was thrown around, and thus was a blog post topic born. (Fair warning, nothing that would be considered graphic, but the post does involve people without clothes on, and people vomiting).

Let me be clear: I’m not here to disagree with that Oatmeal article. It’s more a jumping-off point for the idea tangent it sent me on. Credit your sources and all that.

The specific point off which I jumped was the phrase “garbage fondue fountain”, and the idea that it’s important, when brainstorming in a group, of having at least one person in the group that comes up with an endless stream of bad ideas that everyone else can build from, and use the pieces of those ideas to create something better. I like that analogy – I’m reminded a little of the old parable (one of those Internet stories that gets passed around in Facebook meme form) of the pottery teacher who assigned each student to one of two groups: one group marked on the quantity of pots they output and the others who were only allowed to submit one pot but they could spend as long on it as they liked. Despite the additional time allowed, the best pots were all created by the group who had been told to focus on quantity over quality.

The moral of both these stories, of course, is that when you’re in a creative pursuit, you’re better off generating a lot of ideas, variously because that’s the way that you generate the individual pieces of a good idea, which you can then assemble later, or because through sheer statistics, you end up more likely to create a good idea. Or, of course, you get more practice at generating ideas, though I would say that ideas and pots are a little different. Not totally different – there’s a skill to generating ideas the same way that there are skills you can learn to make better pots, but there’s also a reason there’s such a ‘mystery’ around the process of coming up with creative ideas, and that’s because it’s much harder to pin down that process than the process of actually turning those ideas into creative product.

Now, I’ll go ahead and admit my biases right here: I’m the sort of person who’s always had more ideas than I’ll ever actually be able to put down into words. I keep a record of ideas in a big notebook – when I say big, I mean I’ve got seventy pages of the accursed things, and they’re just the ones that make it past the cut of “I’ve been thinking about this idea long enough that I should spend the time to go get the book and write it down”. I’ve got a further list of disjointed images and lines and characters that don’t have a plot to call home yet. I’m basically set for life on ideas.

So, I’m always going to have a sort of un-mystical view of generating ideas. I don’t mind forgetting them, usually, and I’m not too worried about other people using my ideas as prompts.

I don’t think there’s really anyone out there anymore who expects a writer to be able to write a perfect first draft on the first try – there’s a reason that we have the editing process. But we do expect that for ideas, in a lot of ways. In some ways it’s not surprising, really – we choose to buy books or watch movies or play games based on the premise a lot of the time (except in cases where we are already familiar with the creator). Even when we receive a recommendation for media, the person recommending it will often give a description of the premise as essential information. One of the most frequently-asked questions for creators is “where do you get your ideas?”.

Now, group brainstorming is important, but a lot of writers don’t do their work in groups. The whole point of the garbage fondue fountain is that they spark ideas in other people, right? So how do you do that when you are working alone?

How can you be your own garbage fondue fountain while also being the person who sifts through the mountain of hay to find the needle? Surely the trick to mitigating the garbage is to look from the outside, to see the flaws that the fountain didn’t necessarily see themselves, and in patching those holes come up with new ideas?

There’s a certain balancing act to both uncritically coming up with terrible ideas and also critically picking through them.

I’ll let you in on a secret. That folder full of ideas? I don’t have plans to write all of them. Heck, I expect that I’ll go to my grave without writing even a quarter of those ideas that I’ve written down. I still want to keep them, just in case I can do something with them that I didn’t expect, or combine them in interesting ways with other, later, ideas. But I go back and read through that book occasionally, and I feel like there are probably less than ten out of those seventy ideas where I would be upset if I never got around to writing them. Sure, I still get a bit annoyed if I have a good idea and don’t write it down in the moment. But as for the ideas where they’re already safe? I’m generally OK with just never using them.

Time, then, is the first secret to being a garbage fondue fountain. Be a garbage fountain and then come back in a few weeks or months and see if the ideas still hold up beyond the moment. This, of course, is reliant on there being a few weeks or months in between your projects, so that you can let your ideas percolate. Great for a novelist like me, maybe not so great if your purview is shorter, and you churn through ideas a lot quicker, or if you’re on a deadline.

But I think pretty much everyone knows about that one so let’s move on. Are there any options for both churning out those ideas and critiquing them at the same time?

Well, yes and no. It sort of depends on what type of person you are. Are you a person who vomit-writes your entire first draft and then edits because you can’t both create and critique at the same time? This might be a bit harder, or at least require a shift in gears. But I’m also not the sort of person who believes that it’s impossible to be critical and creative at the same time. Let me know if that’s something you want me to talk about in a later post. I’ll add it to the post list anyway, for a rainy day.

The gist for now is that sometimes you really can’t do anything except wait and get a little perspective. Having just run several edit passes on a very short timeline, that’s an important thing to know. I can be critical and creative at the same time, but it’s hard to be critical of everything all in one swipe, and there’s definitely such a thing as being too close to a project. But there are ways you can be both the idea generator and the idea criticiser.

The first part is to get past the idea that some ideas are “good” and some are “bad”. Sure, there are bad ideas out there. But it’s often about execution as much as the concept itself. So commit some time to it. Even if you’re already sure it’s a bad idea, pretend it’s a good one. Think about how you’d do it. If you break it immediately, it’s probably a bad idea. If you sit with it for five minutes and decide it’s broken, there might be parts worth saving. Record them, discard the rest and try the next idea. If you haven’t broken it after that long, great! Now throw it away. Write it down somewhere, take some notes, but throw it away and get a new one. Just keep going. These aren’t your Great Ideas, they’re your garbage fondue. Take them, mess with them, and throw them away. Later, you’ll piece parts of them together and you’ll have something worth working with. This is quantity over quality. Make all the pots and don’t worry if some of them are wonky. Learn to get real OK with creating something only to throw it away.

But seriously though, if you can? Idea books are super helpful. Get yourself an idea book and read it periodically. Future You will thank you.