Find New References

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Updated November 3, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Creative Doing, by Herbert Lui. 75 practical techniques to unlock creative potential in your work, hobby, or next career. Purchase now for instant, lifetime access to the book.

French Impressionist Edgar Degas once said to poet Stéphane Mallarmé that he had a great idea for a poem. “But Degas,” replied Mallarmé, “You can’t make a poem with ideas. … You make it with words.”

Words are one fundamental element of poetry and prose, and every form of creative work has its own. This prompt is about identifying or referencing an example, sample, or inspiration you’re not as familiar with, and applying it to your work. These examples are often called references—exemplary work that you can refer to as inspiration for your work.

If I’m looking for new elements to reference as an author, I would be looking for new words in the dictionary, or finding new sentence structures I could try.

If you work in film or the recording arts, sounds, scenes, and storyboards are references as well. Filmmaker David Lynch calls this “firewood,” and is constantly looking out for and stockpiling music to inspire his scenes in his films.

You can find references across different crafts. For example, filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson was struggling with a script about two fighting families, when he came across Upton Sinclair’s Oil! Anderson says, “When I read the book there were so many ready-made scenes, and the great venue of the oil fields and all that. Those were kind of the obvious things that seemed worth making a film about.” When Anderson stumbled across that reference, he was able to unblock his script which became the film There Will be Blood. The story itself deviated too far from Oil! to be called an adaptation, though its inspirations are clearly in the through-line of the film.

As you get familiar with the tools and techniques available, if you’re lucky, you might even cobble something together that no one else has tried or imagined. This is how originality actually works: not through a mythological lightning bolt of insight, but through constant bricolage, rediscovery, and remixing of references.

Pick a Neglected Idea

Instead of shelving an idea, pick an idea you’ve put on a shelf—or simply neglected—and develop it. Write down three ways you can change the idea to make it meet your quality criteria.

In Walk Through Walls, performance artist Marina Abramović writes of an exercise where she gives her students a thousand pieces of white paper. The students write down ideas. They keep the ones they like, and trash the ones they don’t. After three months, Abramović only takes ideas from the trash cans; she calls these the “treasure trove” of the things her students are afraid to do.

Remember, each idea holds potential to be the one that changes your life. If you revisit an idea and have the sense that it’s special, don’t be afraid to commit to it.

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