02 Leadership Viewpoints, 05 Language & Writing

How to Become a Perpetual Ideas Machine

We can keep writing lifelong

Picture by the author using a Wikimedia Commons image

Humankind has been seeking a Perpetual Motion Machine for centuries, however impossible it may be, and writers have been seeking a Perpetual Ideas Device for just as long.

Finally, the quest is over for the latter. It’s here!

The Problem

Most authors go through periods when they have nothing in the pipeline, and even prolific writers wonder when new thoughts will peter out.

Of course, ideas, like love, are not enough. We need some talent to compose something worthwhile for ourselves and others. But assuming we can write, how do we maintain a reliable supply of original material?

The Solution

Here are six ways that together keep us replenished with an endless stream of original topics to write about.

1. Freely Associate

Let one thought lead to another, which leads to another. It happens naturally, so get out of the way and let it. Watch when one of the thoughts in the chain feels unusual. Judge whether you want to hold up and use it or let it continue to the following linked idea appearing in the mind until you reach something worthwhile.

2. Idle

Our brain has evolved to feel and think continuously while we are awake. Letting the mind idle is one of the best ways to let new ideas emerge spontaneously. Most will be usual and uninteresting, but a nice new one will appear once in a while. It may come from a feeling, a memory, an observation, or nothingness. It doesn’t matter; empty the field to let them in to play.

3. Read, Read, Read

We know that being a reader is necessary to be a good writer. But it’s not just for learning the craft’s style, grammar, vocabulary, etc. The ideas that reading generates are a big reason writers should read. One may not realise this at first, but eventually, writers catch on to this fact. Then it becomes a reliable source of worthwhile new thoughts. They may come when we read for pleasure or consciously for inspiration. So, read, read, read to write, write, write. Just don’t plagiarise!

4. The Perpetual Ideas Device

The first three techniques are old hat to an extent. This fourth one is my novel groundbreaking contribution.

Writers who aver that a ‘real writer’ never runs out of ideas are presumptuous. I get ideas regularly, but it’s not a flood with no chance of drying up. There are periods when I don’t think of anything worthwhile for two to three days. Does this mean I am not a ‘real’ writer? I think that would be taking things a bit too far. Writer’s Block is not a myth, and I wanted to find a solution for it beyond free association, idling, and reading.

An insight on this came to me this morning while I was meditating (getting ideas during meditation does not mean it’s not meditation!). Here is how the thought train went:

If I can break down all writing ideas into a generic set of parts and classify the parts into types and subtypes and look at their variety and start with a type and instance of the first part and connect it to a type and instance of the second part and so on and assume that every part and type have a few to hundreds or thousands of possible instances then there will be potentially millions of combinations and surely I’ll not have thought of every one of them previously so it’s very likely I’ll get a new combination as an idea every time I use this device and it’ll always be there for me and dependable and how about sharing this with your Medium readers unselfishly as hardly anyone will read your blog anyway so you are safe from others getting all the ideas before you or stealing the device so go ahead. (Apologies for the lack of commas, periods, etc. That’s how a train of thought goes, you know!)

When I considered the composition of ideas, I found that all of them comprise the following:

  • A Subject — e.g., a person, thing, or concept
  • Attributes of the Subject — e.g., its size, colour, shape, or behaviour
  • A Type of Thought — e.g., the emotion it has or creates
  • A Time Context — e.g., how it was in the past

Then I thought about the potential number of each of these components and saw they range from one to about a thousand. See the table below for the result.

The interesting question was, how many combinations do we get of these four components, as each combination would be a unique idea. The formula for the number of combinations of a few things of a set is:

C(n, r) = n!/(r!(n-r)!)

Where:

  • N is the number of things we are choosing from (~3000 in our case, give or take)
  • r is the number of items combined (4 in our case, for the four necessary components)
  • “!” is a factorial of a number. (See: What is a factorial of a number?)

From our chart, we get approximately 3000!/((3000–4)!*4!), which gives us potentially 3.37 trillion combinations!

(By the author. Arrows follow the illustrative examples below.)

That’s a lot, no? I find it reassuring.

Trials of the Device

Let’s give it a whirl.

New Writing Idea 1

I’ll randomly pick a combination, say 3-a-i-B — other living things+physical+knowledge+present.

Train of thought: Bacteria viruses Covid so many dead why do antibiotics (antibacterials) not work on viruses do I know this yes dimly need to check it out and is it common knowledge not so then should I write and share it will it be useful yes quite likely as many will be curious and learn something so go ahead and do a short blog on it. Idea — Why Antibiotics Need to be Different from Antivirals.

New Writing Idea 2

Let’s do one more. Without looking at the table, let’s pick 5-c-iii-B. Okay, so this gives us — mental things+emotional+opinion+present.

Train of thought: Acceptance is good but of what everything from the universe to people but what about moods they cause that’s to be accepted too but this is just my view so what as it is a good one and applicable now while we are not so evolved and have many issues emotionally so right this is a good topic to write about and I will. Idea —Why Acceptance is Essential for Inner and Outer Peace.

Takeaway

One may not take up every idea for writing, but the device will generate a new one for every unique combination of subject, attribute, thought type, and time dimension. Try changing a component in the examples above, e.g., the Time Context to the future or past. It leads to quite different ideas. The possibilities are limitless when we add Idling, Free Association, and Reading to this ‘prompter’ source. It is a simple yet powerful device.

I will use it over the coming months and improve it. I’ll post again in three months to update you. Meanwhile, please feel free to try it out and let me know your findings.


5. Grab it

Whatever the source of a writing topic, you’ll lose it if you don’t capture it. I’ve lost half my good ideas this way. I’ve improved by castigating myself and using simple methods to grab a new concept within seconds of noticing it. I note it down immediately in

  • A WhatsApp group that has just me in it, or
  • A Medium story placeholder, or
  • A Nebo note, or
  • A screen note on my phone or iPad, or
  • My physical notebook.

As one of these is always at hand, I’ve no excuse to lose an idea and struggle to recall it afterwards. Of course, every noted idea is not story-worthy, but if even a third of them are, it’s a good harvest.

6. Turn the seed into a plant

Sometimes I notice I’ve got something good to write about, but it withers away from a lack of sufficient time and focus, either right away or later. Nurture ideas, and more of them will grow to maturity and realise their potential. Pursue the thought, contemplate long and tenaciously, and it’ll gain weight and strength.


Endnote

The species can do with more writers. They make us better and happier on the whole as writing and reading utilise our higher brain that is more intelligent and nice. Anyone literate can be a writer with some application and practice.

I wish you excellent reading, dear reader, and more ideas, dear writer.


(The devices in this story can also be used for general inventions and not just writing ideas. But let’s be careful not to use it for filing hogwash patents, of which I’ve also been guilty.)


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