As I tried to come up with an idea for this month’s blog post I started thinking about ideas themselves. Where do they come from and how? In short, how does ideation happen? I want to think grand and lofty thoughts, so how do I do that?
I think we are all familiar with the phenomenon of the spark of inspiration. It comes unexpectedly and often at the time when we are least prepared to accept it. For me it always seems to come with my hands are wet, so I can neither write nor type. We can help steer these ideas, I propose. We are not slave to their whims. While what I suggest may not guarantee the thoughts and ideas we want they will be more likely to arise.
That spark of inspiration stems from the subconscious, and we know from experience that we have some influence in the subconscious feedback loop. If you are foolish, like me, you have discovered that indulging in the horror genre before bed has a certain, somewhat predictable, effect on your sleep. Even mundane things we’ve dealt with during the day we may find echoed in our sleep.
Our ideas are similarly informed and influenced by the things to which we expose ourselves. So, my challenge to myself and to you is to figure out the kind of thoughts you want to think. Because the oddity of it is that thought begets thought and idea. What you think about becomes what you are more likely to think about. Once you have decided the thoughts and ideas that you wish to have take an honest appraisal of the things you read and watch and listen to as well as the conversations you have. Are they consistent with the ideas you desire? If not, perhaps it is time to make a change. For me it is going to mean less television, most of the shows I watch are just mindless escapist shows, and more reading, especially classics (I just started Oliver Twist) and my Bible and books on theology. What would it look like for you?
It is a hallmark of mankind that we, like water, follow the path of least resistance. When we meet difficulty we push and fight against it. From this steady erosion of difficulty we have many of our greatest inventions. Ocean voyages are long and dangerous, so we have taught ourselves to fly. Waiting for news to arrive through the post takes too long, so we have created the telegraph, the telephone, the television, and finally, that culminating wonder, the internet. (And still we complain about our data speeds being too slow.) We have worn down the resistance we have met in the pursuit of our goals. But have we perhaps made things too easy?
Strength and growth come only through continuous effort and struggle.
It is easy now to publish an idea almost the moment it enters the mind. But this can lead to shallow thoughts. Even if the idea happens to be coherent (my first ideas seldom are) it is not yet tempered and tested.
Perhaps in the march of technological progress the sweet spot for critical thinking is always a few steps behind. Every development in technology is heralded as the death of its forebears. But, it seems that after the settling in period the forebear only becomes more valuable as it becomes less mundane and more thoughtfully produced.
I loathe editing. I like to think that I do all of my editing in my head before I even tough pen to paper. In school I used to pride myself in having virtually no changes between my first draft and my final draft. The temptation to quickly type what comes to mind and click “Publish” is strong. But it is a mistake. Because while I like to think all of my editing is in my head it is insufficient work to develop the idea. I need to slow down and flesh out my ideas before rushing them out into the world.
But I need more than just to slow down, I need to have friction. I need to have the pushback for the idea to really grow and develop. I need to do things the hard way. So, from this need (and admittedly from a sense of nostalgia) I’ve developed the following system for writing.
I write my first draft in my Confidant and then type it, with some editing, on my typewriter as a second draft. The typewritten draft is the one that bears the most abuse as it is now double-spaced. And since it is no longer in my handwriting it feels less personal to correct it. I also take this chance to look for any underlying themes that had not occurred to me before, and to make corresponding organizational changes.
At this point I retype the draft again and hand that new draft over to my wife for her to abuse. With her input I make any final changes as I finally commit it digitally to the CMS. (If I entered it before I run the risk of posting it before I am ready, just to get it done.) One final read through and I finally publish.
There are several reasons I choose to do it this way. For one, I really enjoy it. It is quite relaxing and it makes me feel something like solidarity with past writers and thinkers that I admire. It is also extremely versatile, in my journal I can outline, draft, and doodle all within a few square inches. And it is the ultimate distraction-free editor. I have also heard of studies which have shown a strong link between writing things by hand and better retention and processing of the information, as compared to typing. And my own experience, while anecdotal, would bear this out.
But, most importantly, it forces me to slow down and think differently. My thoughts come to me smoother and more connectedly as I drag the nib of my pen across the page in a smooth, even cadence, as opposed to the stoccato march of a cursor across the blue-hued screen. In fact, there are some things that the most difficult part of writing is finding the most coherent string which ties my thoughts together. A sensation I have never experienced when typing my first draft.
With a typewriter, at least with my typewriter, I cannot type as fast else the arms catch and jam. This too helps me to slow down and think through the words I am using.
What is also amazing to me is how surprisingly freeing it is to lack a DELETE key. Without the ability to remove evidence of error I may start typing words and phrases I did not intend by accident or muscle memory. I am still left with those marks on the page. And more than once those marks have caused a spark and made me reevaluate or rephrase a thought or sentence, and I have been happier with the result. Inspirations strikes in the strangest of ways.
My exact strategy may not be correct for anyone else, but I think that everyone can benefit from resistance. Like our muscles, our ideas need resistance in their development if they are to be robust enough to do their work. As an aside, this is also why I think it is important to seek out opposing viewpoints. It is my opinion that a great many arguments are weaker than they deserve to be because no one challenges the paradigms in the echo chamber of similar thought.
This older way may be more difficult, but perhaps it is that which makes it better. To be clear, I am no luddite. I work in I.T. for a Fortune 500 company, and have, without exaggeration, had dreams of code and command line. (I even type all my posts in Markdown.) But my experience has been that as I have gotten more and more digital my thoughts have become more and more transitory, vapid and inconsequential. It is inarguable that the computer is the easiest, most powerful tool for writing, publishing, and general creation in the history of the human race. But, it makes it so easy that we can too easily say much while meaning little, if anything.
I propose that the superiority of the old way is twofold. First, it acts as a gatekeeper of quality. The thoughts and ideas not worth sharing are abandoned or improved at their inception. And since the development process is artificially slowed the mind is forced to dwell on the idea longer, leading to it being sharpened and strengthened.
This strategy may not be for everyone, but it certainly is for me. And I encourage you to slow yourself down and apply some resistance to your thoughts as well.