Why Creative People Should Never Worry About Running Out of Ideas

Todd Brison

“We had him for twelve years, and then one day he just walked into the kitchen and collapsed, dead.”

I squeezed Francis’s leash a little tighter, horrified.

“He was a dachshund,” the man continued, looking down at my pint-sized pup, whose face had apparently unleashed a wave of sad memories. “The little guy followed me around everywhere. Kitchen. Bathroom. Dining Room. He went where I went. He was a good friend.”

Is this an intense conversation to have with a person you have never seen in your life? Maybe. But strangers have a way of revealing their darkest moments to me. Apparently, I look serene and welcoming.

“I’m so sorry,” I said after a moment.

My white-haired neighbor nodded, then walked away wordlessly.

Francis watched him round the corner. Relieved of the burden that comes with existential awareness, he looked up at me to see if he got a treat for staying still that long.

“Don’t worry buddy,” I said, slipping him one. “You’ll never die.”

Many of us creative types are worried our talents will mirror the dead dog. One day, the fountain of imagination will cease to flow. No warning. No preparation. I think this is because creativity seems like a phenomenon that happens to you, not because of you.

You look at the world, and ideas bloom.

What if that stops one day?

This isn’t a fear confined to new or young creative people. It plagues even the most credentialed. Roald Dahl, legendary children’s author of books like James and the Giant Peach, once said this on the topic:

“If [a person] is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not.”

In some ways, Roald Dahl gets off easy as a writer. It’s just him and the publisher waiting. Maybe you aren’t so lucky. Maybe you relate move to what Twyla Tharp confesses in her biography The Creative Habit:

My dancers expect me to deliver because my choreography represents their livelihood. The presenters in Los Angeles expect the same because they’ve sold a lot of tickets to people with the promise that they’ll see something new and interesting from me. The theater owner (without really thinking about it) expects it as well; if I don’t show up, his theater will be empty for a week. That’s a lot of people, many of whom I’ve never met, counting on me to be creative.

The creative person makes something from nothing.

But what happens if you look at nothing… and get nothing?

When that fear claws at me, I try to bat it away with a story I once heard about Emily Dickinson, an American poet.

The story goes that Emily was sitting on the steps of her house in Massachusetts, writing. A young girl from the town approached her, saw the scribbled words, and asked: “Is this poetry?”

Emily looked back and replied:

“No, my dear. You are poetry. This is only trying to be.”

You worry you might lose your creativity.

Don’t.

As Emily reminds us, creativity can never go away because it is, literally, all around us. It doesn’t come from your mind, it comes from all you see, hear, smell, and feel. So long as there are dogs dead or alive, so long as there are children laughing or wheezing, so long as there are trees blooming or fading, there is work to be done.

Ideas are everywhere. They always have been. They always will be.

So long as you are willing to open your eyes.

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