Don't Let Your Imagination Get the Best of You: a Message from NY Times Editor Hugo Lindgren
Ideas are great, but in having ‘too many’ of them, you run the risk of overloading yourself, compounding your creative schedule to a point you can’t actually manage, or worst of all — never actually getting the thing written, or shot, or otherwise made — whatever the case may be. The editor of The New York Times, Hugo Lindgren, has just written a powerful self-case study about the many undeveloped story and concept kernels he’s had, why they never got off the back burner, and where all the time seems to have gone — in other words, a creative thinker’s worst nightmare. Whether you’re a writer, a shooter, a director, or a film editor, you might want to check out Hugo’s editorial, because you might see a lot more of yourself in his words than you may expect.
Suffice it to say the idea of becoming professionally comfortable in a craft that doesn’t necessitate the creative machinery churning on in your head (i.e., you want to write mystery novels, but you’re lecturing full-time about mold spores and temperate species of lichen to pay the bills) — and therefore putting off actually writing the thing indefinitely — is personally terrifying. It’s terrifying because it’s happened to me in the past, which I suppose means it is, in reality, still in the process of happening now — and postponing a hardcore writing session until “tomorrow” is just so easy to do.
Here’s NYT editor Hugo Lindgren on where all those big ideas of his have ended up:
…My grandiose writing projects were all going nowhere for the same tedious reason. The minute I tried to commit them to paper, or otherwise turn them into something tangible, my imagination coughed and sputtered like the cheap Renault convertible my girlfriend drove in college. I’d write a bit of dialogue using that miraculous software that automatically formats it into a screenplay for you, and I’d be instantly paralyzed from the neck up. Here was incontrovertible evidence that I wasn’t half as good as I imagined myself to be. The voices I heard so clearly and powerfully in my head became inert and alien on the page. I was surprised by how mortally embarrassed you can be by writing something nobody else will ever read. Even looking back over those one- sentence descriptions of TV ideas in the first paragraph of this essay, I am humbled by how inadequately they convey the vividness they had as I conjured them. It’s like hearing a recording of my own voice. That can’t be how I sound. Oh, but it is.
A promiscuous imagination like this is dangerous for writers. As an editor, I can see that clearly. I know that the next brilliant brainstorm is never going to be the one that will just write itself, any more than the last one did. Ideas, in a sense, are overrated. Of course, you need good ones, but at this point in our supersaturated culture, precious few are so novel that nobody else has ever thought of them before. It’s really about where you take the idea, and how committed you are to solving the endless problems that come up in the execution.
I guess you could consider this the opposite problem of writer’s block — the page is blank not for lack of ideas, but for an overload of ideas so great that you become creatively paralyzed — but the page is still blank. It seems very abstract, but that’s exactly the point here — as a creative, you’re the person responsible for channeling the ghostly apparitions of the imagination into the meat-and-bones world of the page, or the even more physical realm of ‘filmability.’ Which can certainly be a terrifying proposition in and of itself. I think this is something any creative person, of any age or level of experience, can come up against.
Have any of you out there experienced this kind of creative seizing-up? Let us know in the comments — I don’t want to be alone in this :)