Friday, February 4, 2011

Grabbing a handful of ideas

The word brainstorming is well established in the dictionary, but I can't help thinking there should be a better word. Brainstorming evokes images of neurons gone wild with chaotic bursts of high-energy activity, which in reality would be a frightening, perhaps life-threatening malfunction.

The focus shouldn't be on the brain, or even on the storm. There's a purpose to the process: to gather lots of new, non-obvious ideas. Because ideas slip away easily, they need to be captured — written down, in words that will still mean something the next day. Brainstorming is a form of gathering.

Imagine that someone on the upper level is tossing down colorful coupons by the thousands. You know that some of the coupons are for free coffee drinks and deep discounts on your favorite shoes, along with all sorts of other offers that you might or might not care about. You could sit on the floor and look through the coupons one at a time, hoping to find a few good ones. Or you could grab a big handful of them, as many as you could quickly gather up, and then go through them at your leisure later at the food court, with the help of a few friends.

Brainstorming is essentially the latter strategy. And it might be more accurately called idea grabbing, although that name has its own problematic overtones.

The traditional idea-collecting method, essentially the sitting-on-the-floor strategy, has never worked very well. People tend to stop when they have one or two workable ideas, while the floor is littered with much better ideas that remain undiscovered, even though they were easily within reach.

When you're gathering ideas for songs, don't settle for one or two ideas that are right in front of you. Grab up 20 or 50 ideas. Sure, many of those ideas will be kind of dumb, but you'll get several really good ones at the same time.

I'll list some specific techniques for brainstorming — or idea grabbing — soon.

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