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Don't Let Your Imagination Get the Best of You: a Message from NY Times Editor Hugo Lindgren

01.5.13 @ 12:36PM Tags : , , , ,

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 :)

Link: ‘Be Wrong as Fast as You Can’ — The New York Times


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  • happens to me all the time. i’ve got a huge folder of ideas called “finish these first!”. i’ve found that i need to finish most creative projects (songwriting, music production, video editing…) within two to three weeks max. after that it gets much harder to keep working on it. for the most part my favorite work is stuf i can get done within a short period of time usually a couple of days.

  • This is, above and beyond, my most damaging flaw as a creative. Cool to see someone so experienced put it into words.

  • Definitely a part of my every day. Always have too many ideas because there are so many options now as a film maker. The tech and software makes so many things possible that it becomes easier to create. And by knowing how easy it is we only fuel our imagination even more. But I always write down everything. Because in the end it’s like a big puzzle. I constantly go back into my notebooks when I need some ideas for a new script or project. And there are always a few lifesavers in them.

    So the biggest lesson I’ve learned from my teachers is. “NO MATTER HOW SILLY OR DUMB, WRITE IT DOWN” You never know when you might need it.


      This to me, is a necessity. Like a fleeting dream you cant seem to remember when you wake up, best to write your ideas down because you’ll never know where it will work but having it in your “archive” where you can easily look it up physically. I’ve found out some times, that the next time you look at this written “idea” your brain sometimes comes up with new ideas to add or change.

      Sometimes its not about having a written out scene or scenario in a constructive format but spider out like a diagram, then to take everything and add it back into a scene. It doesn’t have to be a beginning, sometimes middles or ends are a better place to start from, then from that point you can structure a more interesting path to that conclusion or moment. That’s the great thing about writing, you are the craftsman of the ideas of your mind, if its full, write them out and see what sticks out to you and spread out.

      Now.. back to my ideas of Scifi and ships landing on the orbiting planets at the edge of space, readying to terreform planets through frozen lakes beneath the planet’s surface…

      • ruben huizenga on 01.6.13 @ 9:55AM

        damn. i like your “terra-forming” idea better than my “mutant chipmunks infiltrate the delicate social fabric of north american lawn-bowling clubs.” idea.

  • I really emphasis with the above comments, especially re the gear and there are so many sources of inspiration. Having spent most of my creative career working to strict briefs its really hard working to your own.

  • The first scariest thing about becoming a creative/freelancer/chancer is giving up the day job and committing to the pursuit. Maybe the second and far scarier promise is re-committing to a single idea or project after the freedom of mind it gives you. Most creative people I know look forward towards new ideas and ways to change their perspective. It’s exciting. I love the thought of creating something that will take off and give me more freedom to create. Very few are privileged enough to see more than one idea come into fruition simultaneously. Commit to the first project that shows the simplest and fullest signs of maturation. One half of the battle is recreating the thought and visualisation that initially birthed the concept, the second half is protecting the idea from the battering of new sparks that constantly fight for the space between your ears. Let new ideas die?

  • Favorite line: “A promiscuous imagination like this is dangerous for writers.” I needed this. I’m addicted to the cheap thrill of idea infatuation. Time to edit.

  • I used to feel this way, and can relate, but there’s a huge failing in this logic. you’re just too brilliant to wite anything? that’s a crutch and it’ll get you nowhere. the solution is having better filters for how to choose your projects, and a stronger mastery of process (how to get the writing done). I can’t imagine a NY Times editor has this problem when he has a news story on deadline because he has a plan and a system for finishing his daily writing work.

  • Sometimes coming up with ‘ideas” is another way of procrastinating. The idea is easy, then comes the, often boring, back-breaking work.

  • I have a similar problem, but mine is more about actually finishing and putting myself out there. I have a couple of screenplays I need to finish and move on to the other ideas in my bin. My goal for this year is to finish them and move on to new ideas.

  • Kenneth Merrill on 01.6.13 @ 12:01AM

    I have always said that anybody can make films. And I wholeheartedly believe it. However, this problem right here is why most people don’t. Same goes for writing, performing, painting, and every other artistic pursuit. The only thing that makes us artists special is our persistence.

  • Crazy. The relevance of this and other recent articles that’ve been posted here is staggering. This site lives up to its name better than any other. Things like this I haven’t been brave enough to confront or admit are in now in the forefront. Being burdened with an overload of creative ideas is just how this article describes… Paralyzing.

  • on 01.6.13 @ 11:00AM

    The issue with the scripts I’ve failed to complete isn’t necessarily a lack of imagination, but the persistence and interest to see an idea through. I’m usually satisfied that the idea is on paper far before it’s a finished story. Basically I have rejoiced over getting the thoughts out of my head.

    What’s disappointing is to see a movie released that sounds and looks like one of the ideas I had (and wrote out). Ah, well…c’est la vie.

  • Never re-read any text until you finished. Leo Tolstoy re-wrote WAR AND WORLD 14 times! Mr. KING rewrote “Kerry” at least twice. It’s much easier to re-write, so finish it first, take a gap, then edit, edit, edit.

    p.s. I always have a quiet place in my novels, even if i fruit up as a filmmaker. You also can think about similar creative room only for you.