Do you have a big creative project in store? Do you lie awake sometimes, thinking about what might go into it, what the characters or environment might look like, how it will touch the audience in a whole new way? Do you imagine what it will feel like to have this project under your belt, and what kind of effect it will have on your life?
Let me tell you about Forest Lords.
Forest Lords is a series of ten fantasy novels, each a 1000-page brick, about the epic adventures of Greenleaf Barksley, elf proletarian, and his journeys to attain the Golden Leaf and save his homeland from the scourge of the Curse of the Titaness Denox.
The thing is, none of this series exists—not even Forest Lords Volume One: The Elven Soul. There are binders and binders of “lore.” There are a hell of a lot of character designs (that look suspiciously similar to Elfquest characters). There is the vivid, lively picture the putative author has in his head of how it’s going to feel to write a fantasy series that has everyone panting for the next book or movie or TV show.*
But there is no book. There is only Idea Debt.
*(As a matter of actual fact, there are no binders either. This concept was invented by Benjamin Frisch when he was a snotty teen to poke fun the massive Idea Debts being racked up by others he encountered in the comics scene.)
What is Idea Debt?
I got this term from Kazu Kibuishi when I interviewed him for Out on the Wire episode 7: Dark Forest. His name for the concept was new to me, but it solved a huge problem: what to call this struggle with creative sunk costs that I understand all too intimately. Here’s Kazu:
I try not to to look at what I’m going to do as this amazing great grand thing. I’m not just fulfilling some old promise that I made a long time ago. Now I’m actually solving problems in the moment, and that’s so much more exciting than than trying to fill years of what I like to call my “idea debt.” That’s when you have this dream of this awesome thing for years. You think, “Oh, I’m going to do this epic adventure. It’s going to be so great.” The truth is, no matter what you do, it will never be as great as it is in your mind, and so you’re really setting yourself up for failure.
I like snowboarding, and I used to like hitting all the jumps. And when I would go down the mountain, I would notice a bunch of young snowboarders who were waiting at the top of the jumps.
They may look like they’re waiting their turn. But in fact that they’re waiting there because they’re afraid to hit that jump. And what they don’t realize is that, over time they’re getting colder.
The Idea Debt of having to make that jump, and land it, and be impressive, is getting greater because of the amount of time they’re investing, waiting there, getting colder, at the top of the hill.
By the time they actually do it, they’re probably not going to fulfill that dream. So I learned to just hit the jump or pass it. Do it in the moment, or not at all.
Idea Debt is when you spend too much time picturing what a project is going to be like, too much time thinking about how awesome it will be to have this thing done and in the world, too much time imagining how cool you will look, how in demand you’ll be, how much money you’ll make. And way too little time actually making the thing.
- You tell 15 friends about your screenplay idea, but devote zero time in your week to facing the blank screen.
- You buy a domain name, spend weeks or months researching and reading up on how to build a website, but you don’t actually install WordPress.
- You have a drawer full of half-finished stories and novels and a to-do list item every week that reads, “work on writing.”
- You’ve read 15 free online guides to blogging, built three editorial calendars, have notes on a dozen posts, but you haven’t gone live with your blog.
- You have “binders of lore” and no book.
…you’re living with serious Idea Debt.
I’ve seen so many students struggle for years with Idea Debt. Carrying that debt crippled them. They were beholden to their 12-year-old selves, who had imagined their grown-up future selves as famous manga authors with 40-volume series under their belts. But they did not have the tools yet to actually make the work happen. And so they invested more and more into this grand idea, making it less and less likely that they’d ever be able to pay it off.
They had binders of lore.
If you recognize yourself, you are definitely not alone. There’s nothing crazy about having Idea Debt. It’s the most natural thing to result when you have big creative ideas, but no real plan for actually working towards making them happen.
Even if you’re extremely productive, you can have Idea Debt. There are only so many hours in a week, and you have to make choices. But all of those undone things weigh us down, make it impossible to think clearly about what we should devote our time and energy to now.
I carry a huge amount of Idea Debt. But I’m thinking it’s about time to dump it. So many of the projects on my “someday/maybe” list belong to other, earlier versions of me, not the me of today.
- Screenplay of one of my books? 2007. No one is asking for it, and I haven’t been in that headspace since at least 2009.
- Ebook series of my unpublished YA novel? 2006. Does that mean I’d have to actually read it again?
- Sequel in a series? 2009. After the first one didn’t work? Why would I do that to myself?
- Literary graphic novel idea? That one has been hanging around since 1998 or so.
I do have a very large idea debt that I want to pay, however. I have a concept for a series of paintings that I’ve been mulling over for probably close to 10 years. I have no plan for showing, much less selling them. I just want to make them so I can see them. I can picture them so clearly. I’ve thought about color, shape, size, even where I’ll hang them in my house. That I am not currently living in.
I’m not in a position right now to start on something like that (my paint is in that same house in Brooklyn). I haven’t tested to see if this work will actually be exciting and satisfying to me. It might be pure Idea Debt. But perhaps, it’ll turn out to be Idea Investment, where all that dreaming will pay off big time. (I absolutely want to acknowledge: Idea Investment is a crucial stage of some of your biggest, most ambitious projects. I’ll get back to that concept in a future post.)
And the only way I will ever find out whether my project represents Idea Debt or Idea Investment is if I create a plan that breaks down the project into actionable steps, and then actually take those steps.
You’ve grown up. You’ve changed. And all those old ideas you keep returning to and investing more in just because you feel like you ought to—I mean, they’re your ideas! They need care and feeding!—when you kick them all out of the house, you’ll recover massive amounts of psychic energy. And that energy is what you will focus on the one thing you actually do want to be doing, right now.