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Struggling to Generate Ideas? Here's How to Develop Your 'Creative Compost Heap'

Aidan McGrath
&
Published:
28
Jan
2022
Updated:
02
Jun
2022

I first heard the term 'creative compost heap' from Neil Gaiman during his Masterclass on writing fiction. He was discussing his creative process—how he comes up with story ideas, and what happens to The Ideas That Time Forgot. I loved it so much that I ran with it, and have been using it since—not just for writing, either, but for all of my creative pursuits.

The compost heap is where you throw your ideas—any and all of them. For me, it's mostly my notebook. I write down every idea that I have (I tend to have a different notebook for each project I'm working on), no matter how small, and I let them mulch down. I don't try to remember them, and I certainly don't try to use them all—I just leave them. Soon enough, though, they start to transform—they pop back into my mind, mixed and combined with all of the other ideas, to form something new, something innovative, something exciting. That's a creative compost heap.

How your 'creative compost heap' can boost your creativity

We know that memory is imperative to creativity and that taking notes helps us to remember—so what better way to develop our creativity than writing all of our ideas down (or, perhaps even better, doodling them). Using this method, we can recycle our ideas—no matter how significant—and use the discarded scraps to generate new ones.

Many creatives—authors especially—have little idea where their ideas come from (a common joke being 'the ideas shop'—if only), but many attribute their ideas to confluence—that is, two, previously unrelated ideas coming together. If that's the case, then we, attempting to up our creativity (and generate multitudes of ideas in the process), should deign to become veritable collectors of ideas—keeping them not in our active mind, but in our subconscious, where the waves of our imagination can allow them to clash and bump together, forming something new entirely. We just have to be patient.

How to develop yours

Whilst developing your creative compost heap is rather simple, like any creative habit, it can take some time to get accustomed to. The route that worked for me was keeping a notepad and pen on me at all times (I keep a notebook by my bed and a miniature one in my pocket!). Whenever I have an idea—no matter how small or inconsequential I think it is—I write it down.

Your notes don't have to be detailed or neat, either—the goal of the compost heap isn't to refer back to it but to provide a place to discard ideas so that they can exit from our active mind into our subconscious and mulch down into something new. Of course, if you're curious you can always have a look back—just be sure not to make a habit out of it!

Not a writer? Why all non-writer creatives should level up their compost heap

The compost heap technique can be used by all creatives—writers and non-writers alike, and it can generate more than just creative writing ideas.

For visual creatives, your compost heap could be a scrapbook—a collection of interesting ideas, doodles, shreds of materials, colours. You could even go digital, but that's a topic for another blog post.

Creating daily is a key part of creative life—and whilst having a daily sketchbook can put pressure on ourselves (a detriment to creativity), a compost heap is a wonderful place to sketch pressure-free, aiding your idea generation and visual confluence all the while.

Tips for your compost heap, and mistakes to avoid

Habits—creative habits, especially—can be difficult to start, let alone maintain. Here are our top tips to ensure that the process is as painless—and as sustainable—as possible. (Excuse the puns...)

Get a good compost bin

In our case, our compost bin is more of a notepad or sketchbook—but this advice still applies! Though it's not strictly necessary, it can definitely help—having a notepad and pen that feels nice to doodle in and write with encourages us to use it more, making our habit that much easier to develop.

Throw in everything you can—especially scraps

Perhaps the hardest part is remembering to throw in everything you can whilst the idea is still fresh. This includes quotes, half-finished sentences, inspiring images, news stories, paragraphs—anything you like!

Let the worms do their thing

A common adage in composting is 'let the worms work'—we want to do the same thing. Generating ideas using our compost heap is passive—it will happen without us thinking about it and aid us in coming up with more ideas in the long term. Attempting to force ideas out or put too much pressure on ourselves will hinder the process, and leave us frustrated and uninspired.

Avoid perfectionism

This is one of the pitfalls that I often stumble into. The idea of the compost heap isn't perfection (I'm not sure that compost can even be perfect), and the things we throw in there don't have to be ground-breaking (or, even, 'good'). The inverse of this is true, too: we don't want to be avoiding throwing ideas into the compost heap because we feel that they're too good. Whilst Stephen King famously doesn't keep a notebook (and believes that an idea, if good enough, will not be forgotten), we can't all be Stephen King—and we can all be susceptible to lapses in memory. So why not write every idea down? Some of them might be keepers.

The results

Ultimately, the goal of our compost heap is confluence—helping our ideas to bump into other ideas and create something great. Writing things down, drawing, and doodling is a passive technique to keep them in our heads for longer. Though we may use other techniques alongside it, in the end, every adept gardener (or creative) should have a compost heap—and, perhaps, one day, you'll wake up to find that your discarded scraps have turned into brown, earthy gold.

Suggested further reading

If you're looking for some further reading on memory, creativity, and the science of doodling, we've got you covered.

For memory: Creativity is Memory

For note-taking: The Science of Note Taking

For doodling: The Power of the Doodle

Neil Gaiman's Masterclass: The Art of Storytelling