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Monday, September 3, 2018

Drowning in Idea Debt

by Linda Rodriguez

I have been reading about “idea debt.” This is an important concept that I had never given any thought to. This concept refers to the baggage we carry in our minds of all the old ideas and ambitions we had at one time, in which we've invested great energy and thought, that keep us from doing the new important things we want to do and should do, because they're stopping our energy and thought. I first heard about it from Sarah Swett and Beth Smith, two highly regarded fiber artists whom I respect greatly. They referred me to Jessica Abel's website,, where she discusses idea debt in great detail.

Abel talks about the importance of going through and listing all of these old ideas and ambitions, in which we have invested so much, and deciding which ones we will let go, just discard and no longer pour our time and energy into them. She talks about the immense amount of creative energy and excitement that was freed up when she went through this step. I think it would be a good idea for me to go through this stuff, as well.

Abel also talks about developing systems to support and bolster your creative work, systems based on your individual mind and way of doing things. She is an award-winning cartoonist and graphic novelist (editor of the Best American Comics series for six years) and art professor, who teaches people to do their creative work by using tools that she has developed to help them make their work rather than simply dream about it. She has written the book, Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life, She has a blog,, and a podcast,, as well as lots of free advice and articles on her website.

Abel asked if imagining my future work was holding me back from creating the work I should be doing right now. She told me I was doing too much thinking and too little making. Unfortunately, she was right. The term, “idea debt,” came from Kazu Kibuishi, a name for this struggle with creative sunk costs of energy, time, and passion. Kibuishi points out that “no matter what you do, it will never be as great as it is in your mind. So you’re really setting yourself up for failure in some ways.”

As Abel points out, this huge amount of idea debt not only sets the artist up for failure on this great dream of a project, but also robs him/her of the energy, drive, and passion needed to create the project that s/he wants to create right now. As Abel explains it, “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.” Sound familiar to anyone?

According to Abel, “Avoiding idea debt is about acting before you think too much and get overwhelmed by how hard and how important your project feels.” If you're willing to ignore your fears and shortcomings and just keep on moving ahead, she says, you will eventually bridge the gap between now-you and future-you. But when you carry idea debt for too long and your life moves on, it becomes a weight hanging around your neck and keeping you from moving ahead into the projects that your creative vision of now needs you to explore. It's only too easy to become weighed down by old ideas that hold you back from creating the fresh new work that you as an artist need to be making.

We grow up. We change. We learn. One day, those old ideas that were once so exciting and fascinating are no longer useful to us. As writers, we know that ideas themselves are a dime a dozen. It's always what you invest in them and what you do with them that makes anything worthwhile. I myself have more ideas, that I've been listing in journals and notebooks for years, than I could ever develop if I live for another hundred years. According to Abel, if I kick those old ideas to the curb, I will regain huge amounts of psychic energy and imaginative drive. I think maybe it's time for me to go through those old ideas and be ruthless, weeding out everything that I've truly outgrown, anything that gives me any hint of a pause, trying to cut them down as drastically as possible. We'll see if that doesn't give me new drive and energy to focus on the projects that I want to focus on right now.

What do you think about the concept of idea debt? Are you carrying around old ideas and fantastic goals that are robbing you of energy and drive that you could use currently?

Linda Rodriguez's Dark Sister: Poems has just been released. Plotting the Character-Driven Novel, based on her popular workshop, and The World Is One Place: Native American Poets Visit the Middle East, an anthology she co-edited, were published to high praise in 2017. Every Family Doubt, her fourth mystery novel featuring Cherokee campus police chief, Skeet Bannion, and Revising the Character-Driven Novel will be published in 2019. Her three earlier Skeet novels—Every Hidden Fear, Every Broken Trust, and Every Last Secret—and her earlier books of poetry—Skin Hunger and Heart's Migration—have received critical recognition and awards, such as St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic Best First Novel, International Latino Book Award, Latina Book Club Best Book of 2014, Midwest Voices & Visions, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Thorpe Menn Award, and Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Her short story, “The Good Neighbor,” published in the anthology, Kansas City Noir, has been optioned for film.

Rodriguez is past chair of the AWP Indigenous Writer’s Caucus, past president of Border Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime, founding board member of Latino Writers Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of International Thriller Writers, Native Writers Circle of the Americas, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, and Kansas City Cherokee Community. Visit her at


Annette said...

What a thought-provoking piece, Linda. I've reassessed my life and dreams a number of times and it's always eye-opening, although terrifying.

Kait said...

Just reading this blog gave me energy. A myriad of "wonderful" ideas from my writing life flickered through my mind what I found interesting, a couple sparked my pulses, most, not so much.

Jim Jackson said...

Taking a concept from economics, sunk cost, and applying it to psychic energy is compelling and shines a bright light on wasted energy.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

I'm in a down-sizing and shedding mood, moving forward with no regrets.

KM Rockwood said...

Finding where to draw the line between idea debt and inspiring dreams is important, but difficult.

Warren Bull said...

Very interesting concept, Linda. Thanks for sharing it was us,

Linda Rodriguez said...

Annette, yes, it is, isn't it? I try to remember what a good friend's grandmother always told her--"you're never too far down the wrong road to turn around and find your way back to the right one."

Kait, I know. I find myself thinking I need to let those ideas go.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Yes, Jim. Energy is energy, whether it's economic energy (trade, exchange, etc.) or creative energy.

Margaret, you know I've just come through one of those phases--am still partially involved in assessing and shedding the unnecessary.

Linda Rodriguez said...

KM, that's my issue--is it inspiring and energizing me, or is it holding me back? Have to figure out which it is.

Thanks, Warren.

Gloria Alden said...

Interesting concept that I'd never heard of. I can't think of any idea debts that I have. I'm slowly working on my tenth book in my Catherine Jewell series, but I don't have any other ideas of things I want to do that I don't already do. I belong to two book clubs and two writers groups. I enjoy both. I write in my journal every evening. It might help that I live alone except for my critters that I have to care for that I'm reasonably content with my life as it is.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Good for you, Gloria.