What has been done will be done again, there is nothing new under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 1: 9
So tell me, is original thought impossible? According to Ecclesiastes it is.
I question though, does that include our inspired rearrangements? Because all around us we are re-tweaking, re-tweeting, recycling, re-purposing ideas for a diversity of communications, projects, writings and art.
I’m a great believer in uniquely creative expressions, even if we’re simply mixing up the same words, ideas, and paints with ingenious outcomes.
I once heard how a group of writers and comedians gathered around a long conference table each week and brainstormed ideas for the sitcom Seinfeld. I imagined each spark of an idea and cute quip spoken into the air above the gathering only to be tossed around, added to a similar thought, twisted into another. With that in mind, I encouraged this process with my English, journalism and art students as well as having them draw bubbles, Venn diagrams, freewriting, etc.
The outcome? Who knew. Through the process, through the fun that developed those ideas, we were then faced with the work of it all—how rough or polished it is meant to become. But how do we know when to stop or continue? Underdone to overdone, back to just right? Practice is what I’ve always heard. But I could practice all day and not ever get something right. Practicing smart though comes with the skill developing from applying knowledge, thus wisdom.
Einstein the Cat doing a deep-breath stretch for ideas.
Consider the Source
Years ago I read an article in Newsweek where the author had written a short story about a man who aged in reverse. When the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, with Brad Pitt starring as Benjamin, first opened in theaters, the author’s friends were raving mad. They thought Hollywood big shots had read their friend’s story and stolen his idea without giving him just payment.
The author finally saw the movie and reported, “The movie is nothing like mine except for the general idea of age reversal.”
And was it an original seed that F. Scott Fitzgerald planted when he completed his short story “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in 1922? Fitzgerald later noted he had read a story with the same plot line published in 1921 only after he had written his.
Charlie Chaplin–an old favorite who lives on through the ages–quietly beckons.
Imaginative Ideas Become Universal
Imaginative word combinations became part of my persona almost fifty years ago. When bored with regular dialogue, I formulated teenage phraseologies that included “Happy Friday” or “Happy History Test,” eliciting a laugh from the one receiving my adieu. Think about how I feel now almost a half-century later as talk show hosts offer-up “Happy Friday” and greeting card companies combine happy to the same quirky follow-ups I devised decades ago?
I ask, “Did one of my old buddies get an ad job in New York?”
And what about all those thoughts I’ve been gathering over the years, scribbled on scraps and tossed into decorative baskets for another time? Have they been gathering me?
When my husband banned my buying more baskets, he was subliminally stating what I knew to be true: the baskets were not going to systematize me into creating meaningful passages for my personal and public use.
So I attempted to categorize them by subject and genre to correlate with a particular book/essay/article/painting idea. Only I never completed it. I was too overwhelmed as time lapsed and then irked while reading semblances of what I had expressed now written in others’ published works.
Then again, had I only rewritten what I had read previous to theirs?
I was obviously forming a bubble of exclusivity, for whenever an author inserted a quotation by Dostoevsky, I mentally responded, “Hey, wait a minute, he’s my guy to quote!”
My eyes even rolled when reading passages with tapestry and silhouette, so cliché since I had used them twenty years prior. (Please note my stitch-worked design was more distinctive, then say, Carole King’s tapestry. Hardly.)
I even wondered if a horde of wordsmiths hit jackpot in the university library where my Shaping Fate master’s thesis hides. How else could they have replicated my same (profound?) expressions?
Ideas are as ubiquitous as radio air waves, wifi, and bluetooth. And when we’re alert, some of the same ideas drop into handfuls of thoughts scattered everywhere.
Expand Your Thoughts & Grow Your Mind as a Result
Never confine yourself to arm’s reach and what’s within sight. Since I can’t see past my arm’s length (even with my contacts or glasses on) I’d be living in a pretty small world if that’s where I abided. Stretch, look over the horizon.
Step into that quiet place and let yourself dream.
Walking amidst nature does it for me.
For some of you, it might be brainstorming with a group.
Be a child! Play!
That’s what children do naturally. I was reminded recently when my five-year-old granddaughter Grace was dabbing Thumper’s back paw.
“See this blood?” she said after wiping the stuffed animal.
“No,” I replied, staring down at the perfectly white tissue.
“Pretend,” Grace said firmly, looking me squarely in the eyes.
I watched her run from the rock steps that led down to the lake, across the back slope, onto the patio. Then she circled back for another round.
Why don’t we purpose to do that with our imaginations?
Always look at the various perspectives first,
then a second time …
Why not a third time?
A couple of examples when it worked for me:
A Creative Spark
Over thirty years ago when White Water Parks were popular, one park was opening a children’s area with four animal characters as part of their theme. The promotion in our statewide newspaper revealed a contest: name the four characters and the first place winner received an all-expenses paid family trip to fly to St. Louis, stay in a suite at a hotel and tickets to three St. Louis Cardinals’ games. The second place prize caught my attention: season passes for the summer for four. My two children and I all loved those water wonderlands.
After I read it in the morning’s newspaper, I set out on my morning prayer walk. Without even thinking about the contest, my mind wandered into an inner dialogue that not only named the four characters, but also gave them godly characteristics. When I got back to the house, I typed them out and dropped the entry into the mail. (This was before computers and the internet, mind you.)
Actually I forgot about it, so I was surprised when I received a phone call saying I had won the vacation. All in all, this family trip worth several thousand dollars only took me about ten minutes and the price of a stamp. I’m again reminded how I need to consider doing this more often.
A Spark of an Idea Set on Fire
When my first husband and I got involved in a Christian musical drama, we never realized its reach. The musical drama written by Jimmy and Carol Owen is a gorgeous and powerful story of Christ told through Peter. My husband played Peter with several solos as well as carrying the dialogue throughout, and I played his wife with a solo. Its beginning purpose was for a church production. The response was so strong that several of us worked together to take this volunteer weekend production to prisons, churches and colleges in our state and surrounding ones.
Soon city leaders asked us to present it as a citywide production at the city’s amphitheater. Each of the three nights brought 2,000 attendees, filling the once abandoned amphitheater. The city leaders then asked if we’d consider using the amphitheater as a summer venue.
Our volunteer group of fifty decided we’d do it, committing our Friday and Saturday nights during the summer to this ministry.
So many volunteers committed their time and talents:
My former a cappella choir instructor invested her vast knowledge to the group and soloists. The set designers, sound technical engineers, costume creators and attendants for the parking, the ticket counter and souvenirs all offered up their extra time to see each production was successful.
We formed a board of directors and many of us as board members took turns taking phone calls for reservations. Our den became the work center for sending out summer mail-outs across the country. We had regular bus groups that came as far as Chicago and Minnesota. It was a family investment—all were needed and had a role in the experience.
I share all of this to tell you about how original ideas can be created. On the outdoor amphitheater stage was a fishing village on the left and an interchangeable multi-purpose middle stage. Stage right was the edge of a mountain with a cave sealed by a seven-foot boulder.
One afternoon with our newly adopted son napping, I was down the hall scrubbing a bathtub. In Matt’s room, Ants’hillvania played. Ants’hillvania is a children’s musical drama also written by Jimmy and Carol Owen. In this play the plot line follows the story of the prodigal son Antony leaving his village and his commandant father. Antony sets on a journey with good and bad characters, led off by D.F. Dragonfly to Pleasure Cave Inn into a web of spiders. The songs and dialogue are especially entertaining and the characters are brilliant. This play was presented to our church with one of my best friends who began producing and directing it. When she got sick, she asked if I’d take on the task the month before Matt was born.
That afternoon with a wandering mind scrubbing a tub with Antshillvania playing in the background, the whole production at the amphitheater was set out before me and how the present set for The Witness was a perfect venue for an Ants’hillvania production. Idea after idea followed.
My early mornings and late nights offered quiet times to brainstorm ideas. Daytime forced my organizational/business side to stretch. The main cast was to be teenagers with a few adult and small children’s parts. Most especially, it was to be a family event with parents helping backstage.
One seamstress friend headed up the team for the extravagant costumes—ants, ladybugs, flowers, weeds, dragonfly and spiders. Another friend skilled in set design let her creativity grow wild. The sound and light tech engineers were teenagers with adult mentors who were already volunteering for The Witness production.
Late night ideas continued as I created the program and initial t-shirt design. A young graphic designer took that rough sketch and created an original design for the t-shirts. Many of the same adults who were already volunteering their Friday and Saturday nights devoted their time and talents for the production’s success.
As producer and director, I was honored to work with a cast and crew of 75. Much like an army of worker ants, mothers and fathers of all professions, ages and levels of experience were brought together for a single job— to be a part of what their children and teenagers were investing in. T-shirts, headband antennas (new at the time) and other souvenirs were ordered. By the end of June, the next six Thursday nights, Ants’hillvania had an average of 800 attendees. By summer’s end, new friends and families were formed by this community coming together.
And it all started cleaning out a bathtub with a children’s musical playing.
For each hour we have free, let’s focus on an item on our dream list.
And then, of course, before we can place a swooping checkmark on that list, we must abide by a maxim, three words Dostoevsky surely contemplated while exiled in Siberia: Just do it.
In a tiny chapel in Rome lives one of Caravaggio’s many masterpieces. He only lived to be 38 years old. No pressure here (on my part at least).