Monday, April 30, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #136: Burn Through All Your Good Ideas

I can’t recommend highly enough this tribute that Louis C.K. gave to the late, great George Carlin, which basically describes the moment you realize that you’re nowhere near good enough to make it, but it’s too late to go back:  “I’d been doing this fifteen years but nobody gave a shit who I was and I didn’t either.  But what could I do?  After fifteen years, it would be like getting out of prison! How could you re-enter the workforce?”

The solution that he heard from Carlin turned his career around: Use up all of your “best” material as fast as you can and never think about it again. Take all those ideas that you’re cherishing and holding tight to your breast, the ones that might make you big someday, and just use them all up. Write them and send them out and forget about them.

Whenever I find myself saying “I can’t write that one yet, I’m not good enough,” I always try to remind myself that, If I’m not good enough, then my ideas probably aren’t good enough either, so it’s the always the perfect time to write whatever ideas I have.  And even if I do find that I’m tackling something overly ambitious, that’s great, because it will force me to get better quickly. 

The worst thing you can do is to slowly polish some idea for years and years, convinced that it will one day make you rich.  That will keep you looking backwards, not forward...and it will ruin the idea.  You don’t want to add any polish to your ideas, you want to do just the opposite: strip them down to their essence.  The more polish you apply, the more you’ll have to scrape off later. 

Precious material is death.  The only way to get better is to generate new material, and the only way to do that is to find out what’s buried underneath every old idea that you’re still hoarding.  What you’ll find is raw, uncomfortable, specific, personal, honest material.


j.s. said...

This rule is such a potent combination of self-honesty, practical fearlessness and a ruthless work ethic.

This is fantastic advice and I wish I'd heard this from somebody I trusted years ago, as I've probably had this problem since the day after I wrote my first words of fiction.

And I definitely believe that people can rise to the level of their good ideas. I've seen it happen any number of times with friends who worked on junk or anything just to make something and then, suddenly, seemingly out of the blue committed to a great idea and rose to the challenge of realizing it, upping their game to the next level in the process.

Here's one more reason not to save an idea: If you wait, somebody else out there is going to do it instead, producing something either vastly inferior to what you would have done or acceptable and yet still not objectively better than the worst you would have produced. And they are not going to be paid for the beauty of their idea but for having had the willpower to turn it into something tangible.

Sean said...

Thanks, Matt. I needed this.

Mark said...

Another corollary to this would be that there's no reason not to use your best ideas, because you can always go back and use them again if you think of a better way to go at it.

Hitchcock is the obvious example, but there are any number of artists across all fields who have gone back and reworked and improved or riffed on old ideas of theirs.

Matt Bird said...

True. If you're afraid to touch your best ideas, it's probably because you hate re-writing and fixing things in a second draft, but the better you get the more you learn to embrace that process.