Rilla Alexander: Without the doing, the dreaming is useless

A page from the book Her Idea by Rilla (from the author's website)

Sozi scoops up some of her ideas; a page from the book Her Idea by Rilla (from the author’s website). Rilla Alexander reads from this strangely beautiful and highly original book during part of the video below.

At first you’re excited about your new idea, but the more you work on it, the more inadequate your talent seems. Then the idea itself begins to seem weak. You have other ideas and now they seem better than your formerly new idea. You become discouraged. Progress slows, then stops.

If this has happened to you, watch this seventeen-minute talk by designer and illustrator Rilla Alexander, given at last year’s 99U Conference. Alexander is an Australian-born, Berlin-based designer and illustrator, and author of the children’s book Her Idea.

[Update, Oct. 21, 2013. I’m no longer able to embed the video, but you can still watch it here.]

Alexander is a wonderfully imaginative person and an effective speaker. The almost childlike simplicity of this presentation (illustrated with her own work) doesn’t make her ideas any less helpful to any creative person. Here’s just a few of her points that stuck with me:

Deadlines (starting at about 7:00): “I realize that I know how to finish ideas, because I do it all the time. But what makes those ideas any different? They’ve got a deadline. And those deadlines force me to have realistic expectations. Instead of being preoccupied with how wonderful my idea is, I concentrate on getting it done. The most important thing is that I actually make it happen.” Perfectionism, in other words, can be paralyzing.

Boundaries (about 10:00): “If I set boundaries [i.e., deadlines, self-imposed rules] it means I have to make less decisions while I’m actually working. But it’s also so I’ve got something to push against. I like to squeeze into the gaps between the rules and to create something unexpected.”

Persistence (10:25) “I accept that it’s very unlikely that this idea is going to work out right away. I have to refine it. I have to untangle it. I have to make it work.”

Competing ideas (about 11:00): “There’s always going to be another idea that looks better. But that’s because I’m not working on that idea. If I started working on it, then I’d also discover its flaws and failures.”

11 thoughts on “Rilla Alexander: Without the doing, the dreaming is useless

    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      Well, as my website indicates, I’ve had two books of non-fiction published, including one for young (middle-grade) readers. But now I’m turning to fiction for that same age group. So the ideas that I tend to think about involve stories. My agent is seeking a publisher for a manuscript, and I hope to have good news to report here in the near future… but any writers reading this know how tough it is to get that sale. So I have to remind myself, that’s out of my hands now – the main thing is to focus on the next story. My idea for this blog (and I hope this qualifies as a good idea!) is that there are blogs for fiction writers and blogs for poets and blogs for artists or musicians, etc., but it seems to me that we all have a lot in common and can learn from each other. So, I’d like for say, someone who’s really into painting to find inspiration in the poetry site I blogged about, or for the poets to pay attention to an animator like Minkyu Lee of “Adam and Dog.” Or, I’m neither an illustrator nor a writer of stories for little kids, but I got a lot out of Rilla Alexander’s talk (though again, I think she’s writing as much for adults as for kids.)

      1. Melinda

        Ah! Hope you have good news on your current manuscript and Godspeed on your next story.
        You’ve hit the nail on the head with discovery & curiosity being a common root for Creatives.
        PS You must know ‘The Twenty-One Balloons’ by William Pène du Bois. One of my favourites!

      2. thecuriouspeople Post author

        No – actually I’ve never read “The Twenty-One Balloons.” How did I ever miss this? I just read a description and added it to my reading list. Thanks, Melinda!

  1. thoughtsatintervals

    Thanks for posting this! I’ve been having the exact same thoughts now that I’ve tried to take my novel from the stage of jotted notes to coherent prose. Hopefully it will dispel my doubts for while.

    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      To me it’s really encouraging to know that really successful creative people also struggle to get things done… but work through it. It normalizes the process. If I’m stuck on something or having doubts about it, that doesn’t mean something’s gone wrong. It’s just part of the work – I think that’s what Rilla is saying.

    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      One thing that’s helped me is something Stephen King said in his book On Writing. He said to write the first draft “with the door closed” and to revise with the “door open” – meaning that you write the first draft with no concern for what other people will think. It’s just for you – which is liberating. Then, when you revise, you try to look at it from the perspective of a reader – and then you allow yourself to be critical. Easier said than done, but I think it’s good advice.

  2. poetjena

    I’m a non-doer, compulsively so for the most part unfortunately, so I am thankful to read what you have posted here.

    That citation about ‘boundaries’ especially feels like mine. I know I need them, even though I’ve trod too lightly around them most of my life.

    It looks like it’s now time to reformulate them to myself a bit and instead of seeing them as necessary white washed walls, view them rather as something strong, reassuring,
    cuddly even….

    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      Yes, that’s the paradox of boundaries. You’d think that boundaries would be bad for creativity, that more freedom would always be better, but some self-imposed structure can help focus the mind… as long as the boundaries aren’t too rigid.

      1. poetjena

        You’re so right.

        Thank you sincerely for the insight.

        – am always trying to position myself more skilfully between more structure and less.

        Good thing I get the rest of existence to practice…. hehe…

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