Monday, May 10, 2010

The New Thing (Part Four): The New Openness

OK. I know that I have enough space in my life that I can work on writing (at most) two things: one 'Big' project and one less important project (which I drop if life gets busy).

But what do I write? That's always been my problem ... and a leading contributor to me freaking out about writing: I stress about what's the right thing to dedicate myself to right now. Unpacking what feeds into that stress, I found a whole bunch of stuff:
  • focusing on the opportunity cost (If I write this, I won't be able to work on all my other projects. And will this one even work out? Should I actually be working on something else?)
  • fear of how long I'll be working on it (I ended up working on The Limit for seven years - I am prepared to commit to this for that long?)
  • a tendency to judge the worthiness of a project before I start exploring its potential. 
 ... The result? Paralysis.

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So what should I do with this discovery that I feel good about writing but I'm still afraid to commit to writing something?

On the 652 kilometre drive back from the Pixies' Auckland gig, Sean and Helen and I had a wide-ranging conversation that - at one point - touched on the idea of writer's paranoia: the fear that if you actually talk about your awesome story idea, someone will steal it and write it before you get a chance to.

I've been this guy. I've suffered from this fear, this paranoia, this community-destroying suspicion of other writers. I've thought things like: I can't trust you because you might plagiarise me. I can't trust you because you might get inspired to write something similar - and you might do it first. Or you might get all the credit. Or getting your advice might taint my self-image as the 'solitary creator'.

Well the upshot of that Pixies roadtrip conversation was: I don't care.

First off, it's bullshit. Most writers are too busy trying to figure out how to execute their own ideas to worry about stealing yours. And the chances that they'll be inspired to work on something you've come up with and are passionate about, and work on it in a way that's good and meaningful and fun ... well the chances of that are low.

Second: how are you going to find the people who can help you work on your idea, who help you have fun with it and help it grow, unless you tell people? And the people who might be good supporters for this particular idea might not be who you expect.

Third: I'm going to be alive for another ... (consults life expectancy calculator) ... 53 years. ... Well, that's an unexpectedly awesome discovery, but the point I'm making is that at my current rate of progress, I'll probably create another 3 to 8 ideas in my life.

I came up with 20 ideas in the last two months (thanks to the new routine of 20 minutes free writing a day).

That math's relentless: I have more ideas than I'll ever be able to execute. For some of them, by the time I get round to doing them I won't be into them anymore. Or their time will have passed. What I'm getting to is that (from a certain point-of-view) if people do 'steal' an idea of mine, it saves me the trouble of doing it myself.

Couple those realisations with Seth Godin's post on the importance of:

a) creating ideas that spread
b) focusing on the ideas that spread the most

... and the answer to how do I get over my fear of committing to writing something is obvious.

I can't be afraid of sharing ideas.

I can't be afraid of talking about them and seeing what happens.

Of seeing what works, and what's interesting.

Of seeing what sticks with people.

I can't be afraid to find out which of my ideas are good.

So, a big part of the New Thing is the New Openness. I'm going to talk about the things I'm considering for my next projects, and (hopefully) get a discussion started with you about them. This is entering into Phase 2 of the New Thing: I'm going to write pitches for 8 projects I'm thinking about doing (which will apply lessons from Made to Stick, and maybe even look a little bit like a media release.)

That'll start next week.


Debbie Cowens said...

A really inspiring attitude. I have never suffered from writers' paranoia in the way you describe, but I have had the equally unmotivating fear that if I told people about some of my ideas they would mock them, point out how stupid they were and put me off writing the story before I got started. I guess my paranoia just has lower self-esteem than yours. :-)

I have really enjoyed your New Thing posts and look forward to reading about some of your ideas that you're considering.

Sean_Molloy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Helen Rickerby said...

Oops, the above post was removed by me because it was me posting as Sean accidentally.

What I was going to say is: Woohoo! We're now getting to the heart of the thing. And thank you for the lolcats.

Karen said...

Wow... I always thought that being 'scared' to talk about your work because someone might scoop you was a function of the stupid system in which scientists compete for funding (or in my case sometimes Debbie's "not wanting to look stupid" reason)... but maybe there's something more fundamental about ownership of ideas... whatever... it certainly interferes with productive collaborations in science... and I know from my own experience (in science and the rest of life) that not sharing ideas and talking about your project(s) can make it (them) go stale, get stuck or run off on bizarre fruitless tangents!

Go you! (I'm looking forward to reading more)

Billy said...

There's a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that goes something like "Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you will have to beat people over the head with them/shove them down their throats."

But anyway. Yeah, that is a really interesting connection between Godin and the "what project" problem - at least so far as commercial viability (which is only one measure of creative success, and one source of creative motivation) goes, it makes some sense to see what seems great to people outside your head before committing a year or two.

Though I wonder if ultimately we are driven to create what we must, in some sense...

d f mamea said...

i don't mind sharing my ideas with other writers.

it's producers you need to be careful around.

Steve Hickey said...

@Debbie: I share your concern. I have (or 'used to have' - I guess we'll find out) a real susceptibility to criticism. Pretty much anyone saying that something was a dumb idea, or that I couldn't do it was enough to stop me.

I feel I've gotten far more stubborn over the last 15 years about ignoring this reaction. Finishing a few extremely complex projects helped too.

You seem to be doing well from what I can see. A small group of supportive fans and editors. Finishing stuff. Publishing stuff. I find the fact that you're *doing* stuff inspirational.

(You too, Matt.)

Steve Hickey said...

@Helen: you asked for lolcats. I have delivered.

I'm looking forward to the next stage too. Hope you've got stuff you want to contribute. (Fair warning: 'Destinies' will not be among these projects.)

Helen Rickerby said...

I believe it was Sean who asked for lolcats, while I asked for feelings. Not that I'm complaining. After years of dissing the very idea of lolcats, I've recently discovered that they are in fact awesome.

Steve Hickey said...

Gradually replying to comments due to the busy. @Karen: Fascinating to hear about the parallels with the science community. One of the things I want to read a little more of is the philosophy of science (we only briefly touched on Thomas Kuhn during my BA).

Steve Hickey said...

@Billy: Love the Emerson quote. That's exactly what I'm feeling about the New Openness.

I was going to slightly disagree with your point that we're driven to create what we must, but I realised that my point is only a rephrasing of yours: I've found that I can work on stuff that isn't *mine*, but doing it for too long makes me depressed, frustrated and resentful.

Steve Hickey said...

@DFM: I was gunna give you a "Hell Yeah", ... and then I realised your pithiness seemed to have the air of personal experience about it.

Advice taken.