Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Avoiding "inspiration inflation"

In the past few days, we've looked at a few unhealthy ways that your creative goals can become oversized and thus too big for you to handle. But there's also a perfectly normal process of inflation through which your goals grow larger, when you're filled with enthusiasm and under the influence of the overoptimism that often comes with inspiration.

For example, you have a great idea for a song, and before you even write it, the idea grows into a concept album in which the song is the centerpiece. Your story idea becomes a novel, and then a trilogy.

One thing I've pointed out before as a songwriting coach — and it applies in any creative field — is that any idea can be done at any size, large or small, and on any "budget," simple or elaborate. Don't let your ideas, no matter how brightly they glow, tell you what size they have to be. Make them fit into your creative context in a way that supports your large-scale career goals. In other words, be practical in setting the size of each project.

How do you know when an idea has gotten too big for you? One sure tipoff is if you put off working on your idea until tomorrow, because it seems too daunting to handle today. The sobering truth is that if you put off your project even once, there's a fair chance that you will never complete it. If it's too big to handle today, it's probably destined for the junkyard of brilliant projects that you never got around to working on.

So go ahead and take out that pruning saw today. Cut your project down to a size that you can handle right now. Don't think of it as diminishing your idea or undermining your own inspiration. On the contrary, scaling it down means rescuing it from oblivion. It didn't take any time or effort for your idea to grow oversized, and it shouldn't cause you any pain to scale it back down again.

I make a rule to resist the temptation to make a project bigger until I've gotten the first version of it basically completed. Then, if I still have plenty of energy and enthusiasm, and if the idea seems to have room to grow, I can still go for it. But I don't want my ideas to swell up before I actually start working on them. (My junkyard of abandoned projects is a very large junkyard.)

What I've learned is that inspiration often arrives with its special kind of optimism. This burst of optimism can can give you a big push to start working, but it has a dangerous pitfall: it seriously distorts your judgment about how much work the project will take.

You might feel sure that something will take just one hour from start to finish, and before you know it, you've stayed up working all night, and you still seem to be "just one hour" away from finishing.

When your estimates can be off by an order of magnitude, that means that any little addition to the project might be ten times as expensive as you think they are. So it's prudent to be firm about limiting your ideas and pushing back when they want to get bigger. Figure out what part of the project is truly essential, and chop away everything else.

Again, the appropriate time for your project to grow is after you've already finished creating the first version of it.

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