The Slow Growth of Ideas

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Writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us. The writing itself reveals what is alive.   -Henri Nouwen, “Theological Ideas in Education”

I was born impetuous and energetic by nature. I’ve spent a good part of my life hitching myself onto ideas born in the moment, dashing them off, and catching the next ride. There was a time when I was the answer man, and it didn’t take much to let me blast you with my expert 17-year-old opinion.

Thankfully, life and a little maturity happened and taught me to shut up and listen a bit more, to read and think a little longer before speaking. And yet, as I started to get serious about writing in my late teens and early twenties, the impatient fire continued to burn in other ways. I was under the impression, in those early days, that all good and genuine creative writing had to come in the moment, and that to later change or edit this inspiration from on high would somehow destroy the purity of the work.

Thus, a lot of my early poetry and songwriting remained “as-is.” I realize now that while some poems and songs do seem to come as they are given, from some strange place I know not where, more often than not, and more often in recent years now that I think of it, I get only a melody, or a series of chords, or an image, or a memorable phrase. Then the struggle begins, to find the words that give voice to notes, or to tease out an image into a scene, or a phrase into a poem.

As the title of this post suggests, I’m learning that good ideas are often given as seeds, or maybe buds, that have to be watered and watched and nurtured until they open up their treasures for us. This requires a few things:

Time to be. I have been learning a lot about this over the past few years. There must be filling before there is outpouring. You need time to be before it is time to act. Madeleine L’Engle is great on this in her book Walking on Water:

“When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening. I will never understand the silent dying of the green pie-apple tree if I do not slow down and listen to what the Spirit is telling me, telling me of the death of trees, the death of planets, of people, and what all these deaths mean in the light of love of the Creator who brought them all into being; who brought me into being; and you.”

Patience. Doing good work requires patience with your material, and not trying to force something out of time. Anyone who has worked with plants knows there is a lot of tending, pruning, and waiting that goes into the process. The same goes with artistry. As Dorothy Sayers writes in The Mind of the Maker:

“The only way of ‘mastering’ one’s material is to abandon the whole conception of mastery and to co-operate with it in love: whosoever will be a lord of life, let him be its servant. If he tries to wrest life out of its true nature, it will revenge itself in judgment, as the work revenges itself upon the domineering artist.”

Perseverance. It does no good to have the seed of an idea if you do nothing with it. Tomato plants usually do not produce great tomatoes if you just throw them in the ground. You have to water them, train them, and pluck those suckers out from between the branches. As Denise Levertov said in The Poet in the World:

“Though the inspired poem is something any poet naturally feels awed by and grateful for, nevertheless if one wrote only such poems one would have, as it were, no occupation; and so most writers, surely, are glad that some of their work requires the labor for which they are constitutionally fitted.”

Like any other vocation or craft, artistic endeavors require work and discipline.

I know taking these ideas to heart and putting them to practice is helping me, and it can help all of us grow our ideas into their beautiful full forms.

Chris teaches writing and literature to college and high school students. He is the author of several books of poetry, and has released several albums of original music. He is also an amateur photographer, part-time stick-swordfighter, and chai enthusiast. He and his wife Jen enjoy reading, writing, and exploring the cities, coasts, and forests of New England.


5 Comments

  1. Bailey Gillespie

    Lovely and so true. I’m in that stage of not knowing what to do with such a massive flurry of ideas and am trying to slow down to pick out the one that just won’t go away, in hopes it’s the one worthy of my focused time and effort.

  2. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    In our increasingly relativistic society, the desire for “self-expression” often precludes the desire to develop artistic technique – technique which gives us the tools to work with the seeds as they come. Sometimes ideas do pop out whole, but mostly they come out as seeds or young sprouts. Pressfield says that the professional focuses on mastering technique, while the amateur focuses too much on the Mystery.

    It’s sort of like being in church when worship is beautiful, your focus is entirely on the God who loves, adores, and has forgiven you, who lives inside you, you’re thanking him and getting a Spirit-feeling you can feel in your solar plexus, chills down your neck. Then suddenly you start looking at the feelings, thinking, “Hmmm, this is interesting.” What happens to the connection? It ceases, and the feelings begin to die off. Best to get the focus back where it belongs.

    In other words, you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing, focused on the right thing, and then that focus, along with its fruit, is lost due to excessive self-preoccupation.

    One of my favorite quotes:
    “A gift of any kind is a considerable responsibility. It is a mystery in itself, something gratuitous and wholly undeserved, something whose real uses will probably always be hidden from us. Usually the artist has to suffer certain deprivations in order to use his gift with integrity. Art is a virtue of the practical intellect, and the practice of any virtue demands a certain asceticism and a very definite leaving-behind of the niggardly part of the ego. The writer has to judge himself with a stranger’s eye and a stranger’s severity. The prophet in him has to see the freak. No art is sunk in the self, but rather, in art the self becomes self-forgetful in order to meet the demands of the thing seen and the thing being made.”

    “I think it is usually some form of self-inflation that destroys the free use of a gift. This may be the pride of the reformer or the theorist, or it may only be that simple-minded self-appreciation which uses its own sincerity as a standard of truth.” Flannery O’Connor, The Nature and Aim of Fiction

  3. Esther O'Reilly

    This reminds me of Paul Simon’s reaction when “Bridge Over Troubled Water” fell out of the sky: “Huh. That’s better than I usually write.”

  4. Jody Lee Collins

    Chris, I am a new reader here at the Rabbit Room.
    This is a great piece–very wise words. I was thinking the other day about the fact that life is in the seed, as I lamented my own seeming lack of fruitfulness in my writing.
    God’s kingdom grows we know not how, the Scripture says. I think writing well is like that–God gives the seed and the life is there but it takes time, attention and care.

  5. Brenna

    Thanks for this. I’ve just come out of a place where I’ve been domineering with a story I’m working on, to the point where I nearly choked it to death. I’ve started over, and there’s more life and freedom, but letting go of all that control is scary. So, your words are an encouragement.

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