the difficulty of ideas

The single smallest creative act is to have an idea.

The nature of being a person includes this inescapable thing that everyone experiences: at a base level, we all imagine things that aren’t in existence yet.  We look ahead to a future we wish we had.  We play back conversations in our heads with better, wittier responses.  We read stories and our brains and hearts fill in myriads of details around the main characters, things that were never said but fit, so perfectly, into our mind’s eye of the protagonist.  We imagine the smell and taste and texture of bacon.  Because what else would you imagine?

The generative nature of all of our minds is surprising and wonderful and stunning all at once.  But the simple existential fact is that we all have ideas, good, bad, smart, stupid, define them as you will.

And that’s a serious problem, at least in my experience.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to narrow down the difficulty with ideas to two areas: large and small community experiences.

I work for a good-sized non-profit, with a lot of wonderful idea-makers in it.  I have friends in middle management who have a sharp understanding of what makes our company tick, and their ideas for improvement and optimization are nothing short of brilliant.  But most of those ideas won’t move beyond the idea phase to the actuality.

First, they’re telling me their ideas.  And regardless of how excited I am about them, if those ideas don’t trickle upward (a phenomenon that is remarkably hard to find, due to a thing called gravity) there is little to no chance that they will actually become reality.

Second, all my other middle management friends have great ideas too.  Unless there’s some kind of vetting process for ideas which would objectively push the best ones to the top, what usually happens is that the loudest idea-mongers get their ideas put into play.

Finally, little phenomena like pride, fear, and jealousy (let’s save time and call these things sin) get in the way of the best ideas.  These aren’t isolated to the people on high receiving the ideas, by any means.  In other words, while ideas in this circumstance can be tested thoroughly, the likelihood of activation is low.

The opposite environment (not surprisingly) breeds problems too.

Say I have an idea, but no accountability or community to test it in.  Or maybe I have a community, but I’ve been gifted with an obnoxious personality that runs over anyone in my way.

In this scenario, the potential for my idea to be terrible is statistically through the roof, because it can’t be tested. Given the limits of individual human knowledge, the likelihood of personal risk and/or forming a cult are high.  My idea may have merit, but without checks and balances I am, more than likely, toast.  Or worse, I put everyone I know in the toaster with me.

(A caveat: It can’t be discounted that certain ideas won’t actually affect a ton of people in a detrimental way.  Maybe I want to say something true about the nature of penguins. If I were to take a couple of hours and write something artsy and interesting about how penguins live, there’s not really… well, I can’t really think of any problem with doing that, unless it’s like this consistent thing where I’m abandoning my responsibilities as husband and father to write about penguins.  Maybe you get what I’m saying without further exposition.)

So how do we, as believing artists, harness ideas faithfully in any context?

For starters, like most things in life, our ideas are not automatically redeemed just because they’re creative.  Why does such and such an idea stick in my mind and convince me of it’s value?  Is it because it appeals to a base sense of pride?  Is it because it frees my lazy heart to take shortcuts around things I have no business trying to make more efficient? Unless we have a basic mistrust of ourselves, we can’t begin looking at our ideas objectively.

At the point when we’ve vetted a particular idea for sinful motivation, community comes into play.  Like everything in life, this is nuanced and messy. The very practice of vetting the ideas with other people brings other sinful natures into the equation.  How can we trust the human checks and balances around us unless we are learning to live in community and die to self on a daily basis with these folks?  For believing artists, this boils down to church at it’s core.

The people in my life are valuable sounding boards, for a simple reason – more than likely, they will see my motivations more clearly than I do. Here is the moment (ideally) that I trust them to call me out, and the moment they trust me enough to call me out, knowing that I would want just that.

In other words, community is a way to keep me and my ideas honest and humble (repetition is one of my strong suits). This is probably more vital than I realize, and definitely more difficult.

When an idea is revealed to a community, everyone in it naturally considers the reasons for it existing, and particularly how it benefits the community.  Yonder lies arguments, but these should be welcome to us. For example: in a believing church context, where Christ is supreme, our ideas for artistic creation necessarily fall under parameters – usage (what is this for?), aesthetic value (which culture are you in? will the aesthetics hinder other aspects of your creation?), communication (will your meaning get lost in translation? does that matter?), etc.  This is the moment when we ask ourselves and our God the right questions, and half of the artistic process is learning what those are.

As artists, we often act defensively when others challenge our ideas.  I have trouble keeping track of the amount of times I’ve heard the words “well, what I meant was actually…” come out of my mouth.  I don’t mean we should create things that only appeal to the lowest common denominator. I do mean that if there’s something not registering, we should investigate the reasons why and learn from them. This feels like putting fences around artistic creativity, and it should. Creativity without boundaries is ultimately dangerous.

So say we have an understanding of our weakness, a community around us, good questions, and natural boundaries for our creativity. The end game of any idea is activation, and in many cases there is nothing to do but try it out and see where it goes.

At this point, let ‘er rip.


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