On Not Sharing Ideas Before They're Hatched | Issue 16
Why I never share an idea before I have a draft
The other day someone asked me what I was working on next, and I blurted out “I can’t tell you!” We both laughed about it, but it got me thinking about my reluctance to share ideas before they are written.
I’m hesitant or, in this case, insistent about not talking about ideas before they’ve hatched. If I share an idea before it is written, I will not write it.
The main thing propelling me forward with a new idea is the initial burst of inspiration and excitement, and if that gets derailed, it can deflate a whole project.
Every single time I have shared an unwritten idea, ignoring the voice inside my head telling me to STFU, I never pursue it. It is definitely a me-not-them thing because it doesn’t matter whether the reaction is positive or negative. If I say it out loud to someone, I will not write it.
The first time this happened I was in high school. I saw that the Toronto Star had a writing contest, and I decided I was going to write a story for it even though I had never written a short story for anything other than a school assignment. This was the first inkling I had of wanting to be a writer.
I came up with an idea where an old couple is sleeping and one of them dies before the other wakes up. It wasn’t a particularly original idea, but I was excited to tell this story and shared it with a friend who said my story idea sounded like something we had read in English class but they couldn’t remember which story. Devastated, I scanned our English textbook to find the story my friend was referring to, but I couldn’t. I asked our English teacher if we had read such a story and she didn’t know what story I was talking about. Despite this, I became so worried that I had inadvertently taken the idea from another writer, I not only stopped writing mine, but also didn’t take up writing again until I was in university.
Many years later, I shared an idea I had for a screenplay with a friend who said that the idea reminded her of another film. Although it had not been her intention, the comment made me lose interest in the idea.
When you tell someone an idea, they often scan their minds looking for some kind of comparison which can serve as the basis of their response. It makes sense why the receiver of an idea would want to make a comparison, but it’s not necessarily helpful to the generator of the idea early in the process to hear that their idea is like someone else’s.
Over-enthusiasm can also spoil an undeveloped idea. I once told a friend about a TV series I wanted to write and they started taking the idea and running with it, coming up with characters and scenarios. Even though the response was positive, I stopped writing this idea after talking about it.
Another time, I had an idea I was so excited about and I shared it with anyone who would listen—all of whom were very enthusiastic, but when it came time for me to write it, I just couldn’t execute it. The pressure of the good pitch made me lose momentum.
My failure to follow through on shared unwritten ideas can be explained by a 2009 study where psychologists discovered that when people tell others about their goals (or in the case of writers their ideas), and these goals are acknowledged by the person they tell, their brains are tricked into thinking they’ve accomplished the goals thereby reducing the chance that they will actually follow through. However, a more recent study found that if people share their goals with someone whom they believe has a “higher status” or is more successful, then they’re more likely to achieve their goals.
Given my past history with idea sharing, I’m not going to test this new theory.
Everything I have published, produced, or finished was unshared at the incubation stage. Of course once an idea is written, I talk about it or seek feedback, but before a draft is written, I say nothing!
Do you ever share ideas before you’ve written them? Let me know in the comments.
Kathryn Mockler is a writer, publisher, and Assistant Professor in Screenwriting at the University of Victoria. Her debut story collection is forthcoming from Book*hug in 2022.
Issue #16 of Send My Love to Anyone
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