Ideas outside of yourself

I used to have a large whiteboard. Sometimes, there would be project outlines on it. Sometimes, I would sketch out outlines for posts. Sometimes, I would use it to help me play with an idea. Essentially, it was an aid, a thinking tool, a way to externalise to my internal thinking processes.

It’s gone now. I wanted some more bookcases and the whiteboard took up a lot of wall space. So what I used to do on the whiteboard I now do in a notebook. Is there much of a difference? Yes, and it’s quite profound.

Consider this passage from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy:

“ “You’ve missed everything and understood nothing. Look, man, the Empire can replace nothing. The Empire has always been a realm of colossal resources. They’ve calculated everything in planets, in stellar systems, in whole sectors of the Galaxy. Their generators are gigantic because they thought in gigantic fashion.
“But we—​we, our little Foundation, our single world almost without metallic resources,– have had to work with brute economy. Our generators have had to be the size of our thumb, because it was all the metal we could afford. We had to develop new techniques and new methods—techniques and methods the Empire can’t follow because they have degenerated past the stage where they can make any really vital scientific advance.
“With all their nuclear shields, large enough to protect a ship, a city, an entire world; they could never build one to protect a single man.”

A whiteboard—and, to a certain extent, other, smaller thinking tools like notebooks—eases the mental pressure. Because you can put what’s in your head outside of yourself, you don’t have to carry the weight of your ideas. You don’t have to juggle and remember it all. This is certainly an advantage, but it can also be a disadvantage.

If I have an outline for a novel, I could put it up on a whiteboard. But that, for some reason, makes it seem more permanent, more real, and less malleable. Whereas if I don’t externalise it, if I hold it in my mind rather than committing it to an external source, I can manipulate it, bend it, shrink it, twist it, grow it at will. And I can do this in a way more free and expressive than if it was held by an external source.

Creativity loves constraints. We’re more inventive and innovative when we have less materials, less time and more restrictions on what we can do. By using whiteboards and external representations of thought we’re releasing some of the mental tension. But at the same time, we’re loosening the constraints. Some of those restrictions seem so suffocating, but are in fact central to the creative process.

That’s why, when it comes to building on ideas and exploring possibilities for projects, I prefer the Foundation approach over the Empire approach. I prefer to operate under artificial terms of scarcity to increase the pressure. I’ll avoid outlining and speculating anywhere but in my mind for as long as possible, until the tension begins to take over and distract me from other tasks. At that point, when I can no longer stop myself thinking of a thing, I’ll commit it to an external source.

Sure, this approach has its disadvantages. But, over time, I’ve found it leads to ideas and writing and work that is more interesting, more nuanced, and backed up by a stronger foundation of contemplation and thought.