Writing About Writing: Ideas Are Overrated

Yesterday, my recently retired father started asking me about writing. He was considering taking a creative writing class but was worried about his ability to come up with ideas. His question seemed so simple.

“How do you come up with your ideas?”

And my eyes lit up. I rambled on and on about different scripts I’d written and how those ideas came to me. I encouraged him to just start writing without fear of criticism. Take that class! Seize the day!

What I did NOT do was give a straightforward answer to that simple question.

“How do you come up with your ideas?”

And the reason is I don’t know. There’s no particular method that I feel is more likely to generate awesome ideas than another.

But as I’ve given this question more thought today, I’ve realized something. Writing has virtually nothing to do with your ability to come up with good ideas. I imagine this is a common misconception among non-writers, but seriously. You don’t need good ideas to be a great writer.

Writing is not about having good ideas. It’s about having the skills needed to turn any idea into a good story. 

We’ve all seen movies that had a promising premise but fell flat. I can also think of some movies that seemed like they shouldn’t work but somehow they do. It was never about the initial premise at all. It was about execution.

Perhaps the best example of this is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece known as Hamilton. No, it’s not a movie but the example will still work, trust me. On its surface “let’s make a rap musical about Alexander Hamilton” really isn’t that great an idea at all. “Let’s write rap songs about central banking policy” is an absolutely dumbass idea.

The genius of Miranda is not that he had these ideas in the first place, it’s that he had the ability to make something great out of ideas that would’ve probably been a hot mess in anyone else’s hands. Furthermore, he had the confidence to know that idea COULD turn into something special if only he worked at it. He had the fortitude to power through the process of writing and re-writing and then re-writing some more. It’s that process that separates people like Miranda from the rest of us, not his ideas.

An idea is only as good as the work you’re willing to put into it. Supposedly “good ideas” are worthless if you’re unwilling to put in the time to make that idea into something. Supposedly “bad ideas” still have potential if you play around with them and write and re-write until they become a worthwhile script. If an idea inspires you enough to pour your blood, sweat, and tears into it until it’s good, THAT’S the idea you should write, not the idea that you don’t want to commit to but seems interesting at first glance.

So if the thing currently holding you back is a lack of belief in your ideas, that’s fine. Don’t believe in your ideas. Believe in your ability to do something with them.

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