What If I Run Out of Ideas?

One of my biggest fears as a creative storyteller is that I’ll run out of ideas. If I'm really honest, I grapple with this fear on a daily basis. One day, according to this fear, I’ll reach the awkward moment where the well runs dry and I have nothing left to offer. All the ideas will have expired. There will be no more.

No amount of evidence to the contrary seems to convince this fear to go away. Rationality doesn’t stack up to fear very well anyway. And I’ve found this to be something most of us struggle with in the area of creative ministry and storytelling. It’s an internal battle, and it mostly has to do with scarcity, the idea that things will inevitably run out at some point.

Stories We Actually Want to Hear

“Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.” – Native American Proverb

We all love a good story.

A story can change our heart and open our mind to new possibilities. It can allow us to experience the world through the eyes of someone we may never meet. A story can immerse us in culture and scenery of places we may never visit.

We’re surrounded by stories. They’ve been part of humanity since our earliest days, when our ancestors etched their stories on cave walls and passed them down through oral tradition. Then came papyrus, the printing press, radio, television and the information age. The delivery systems have changed, but the power of a good story remains

Why We Won’t Bare Our Soul

For all the interest and enthusiasm about storytelling in the church lately, there’s still a lot of fear involved in sharing our stories in front of God and everybody. And it's understandable. Think about it. We're all social creatures. From an early age, we have a tendency to scan our environments to observe what people are wearing, how they’re talking and what they’re saying. This is one of many survival techniques we perfect as we get older. We need to belong, and we want to make sure our words and actions don’t put that in jeopardy.

I love to film people’s stories. But whenever we wrap up filming, the first question people usually ask me is, “Was that ok?” What they’re usually asking us is, “Can you use that? Did I say what you wanted?” And they’re probably feeling something closer to “Crap, why did I just say all that on camera?” All of a sudden, it’s out there now for the world to see, outside their control.

Here's the Thing About Empathy

I am married to one of the world’s most compassionate people.  This may sound like a grandiose overstatement unless know my wife, in which case you know I’m not exaggerating.

My wife makes people feel cared for, understood and loved deeply.  If you’re familiar with the Enneagram, she’s an off-the-charts Type 2 - tuned into people’s needs and always ready to help, especially if you’re alone and need a friend.  She checks in on people, cheers them on, and cries with them when they’re hurting.  She can barely watch the news and has never seen a horror movie.  It's just too painful to watch other people in pain.  She’s easily the kindest, most merciful person most people have ever met.  

And I never hear the end of it from everyone we know, how much I LUVVV your wife.  It’s kind of annoying.

A Tale of Two Storytellers

“I have an idea for a book I want to write.”

It was Thanksgiving, and the family was all together. My dad and brother were in the room – both writers like me – and I wanted to share my great story idea.

“A boy grows up with an inventive father. The dad’s always creating new contraptions – kind of like a wacky Willy Wonka character. But one day, the dad finds out his father died. He’s thrust into a depression, and the boy has to figure out how to relate to his dad. All seems lost until one day the dad discovers a treasure map…”

“Hold on,” my brother interrupted. “What’s the inciting incident in this story?”

My frustration manifested tight lips and a red face. “Just. Uh. Just listen to the story.

The Strength of Your Story

Let’s talk for a second about stories, shall we? More specifically, let’s talk about YOUR story. Although I don’t know what it is, I know it’s incredibly personal. Depending on your age, it may be a long story ... Or maybe it’s been pretty short. Many might know your story. Or you may have kept it hidden and only shared it with a few. I also know that your story has involved strength. That’s right. I guarantee it’s taken some amount of strength to get to where you’re at. (And you’re here, so it’s not over yet!) But have you identified that strength and used it to share your story with others? If not… Where do we start?

Listen First

The most terrifying people in the world are 7th & 8th graders. I know this from first-hand experience because I used to teach 7th & 8th grade band. Teaching 60+ kids in your classroom at once after handing them noisemakers is like a scene out of Hurt Locker. One stray fart noise and it’s all over.

As a band director, one of my jobs (other than counselor, disciplinarian, parent, teacher, psychologist, custodian, psychic, doctor) was to listen and respond to what I heard the band play. In order to respond with constructive feedback I had to listen obsessively.  My ear would be tuned in to every note, rhythm, instrument group & specific student.

Now What?

On June 24th, millions of British citizens woke up to the unexpected news that their country had voted to leave the European Union. Google reported that searches for "what happens if we leave the EU?" flooded in that morning. The country was shocked.

On November 8th, millions of Americans stayed up to watch Donald Trump take the stage and thank his supporters for a campaign victory. Nobody saw it coming. The Donald looked as surprised as anyone.

Did We Get Everything?

In storytelling, I’ve found that there’s often a moment of truth at the end of an interview. For me, it used to be a moment of panic.

I'd go out to film someone’s story without much interview prep beforehand. I'd show up with a few questions handy just in case, but most of my attention went to figuring out gear and filming locations. 

We’d arrive, set up, fine-tune our shots, and start rolling. I’d ask the person to share their story. I’d keep the conversation moving forward, making sure everyone was engaged. But my head was somewhere else. "How’s the light? Is that a plane flying overhead? This guy’s a talker. Oh they’ve got dogs, fantastic."

Most of the time, I was half-following a story I was half-familiar with, assuming we'd figure it out in post. Then suddenly, we'd arrive at the end of their story. And I had to make the call. Are we good? Should we go back and cover something again, or can we wrap up and pack down?

How to Kill a Great Story

I've told all kinds of stories under all kinds of deadlines. That's often how things roll in the church. Our leaders' best ideas seem to pop up a day late and a dollar short, without the resources or the time to execute them properly. But somehow, we just go ahead and do it anyway.

We live in a culture where we pride ourselves on getting stuff done. Busyness is a given. Exhaustion is a badge of honor. Particularly in the world of production, a lot of us are adrenaline junkies. We almost-don't-make-it across the finish line a lot more often than we probably should. Don't believe me? Look at what you spent on coffee this past year.

So What Exactly is a Storyteller?

Last year, I was down in Ecuador filming some stories from our church’s ministry there. We met up with two of our missionaries who I’ve known for several years. While we were catching up over lunch, discussing our plans to film, one of missionaries leaned over and asked me, “so Brian, what’s your job title again?” I told her, “I’m the Pastor of Storytelling.”

She busted out laughing so hard, she nearly fell out of her chair. “Storytelling? Is that a job?” I might as well told her I was the Curator of Rainbows and Feelings.

The thing is though, I get it.

Courageous Storytelling

We spend a lot of time talking about why stories matter. We’re told that storytelling is one of—if not the most effective means of communication. There’s something special about connecting with a story that causes us to see things differently, or to feel less alone in our own story. But in order for us to get to this place of connection, a story has to be heard. Someone has to start. Someone has to go first.

What if that person was you?

Once Upon A Time

*“Once upon a time,”* I always began, *“there was a little girl named Pesty…”*

The bright blue eyes of my sister and brother would grow wide with anticipation as I wove yet another bedtime tale about a reckless heroine who got into all kinds of trouble but always bounced back to save the day. I was about 10 years old, and shared a bedroom in our small suburban house with a sister, just a year younger than me, and my brother, three years younger.  

Most nights when my parents turned out the lights, my siblings would look at me and beg, “Tell us another Pesty story.”  I made these stories up, and I suspect that the character was wacky and wild to compensate for how safely I lived my own life – never coloring much outside the lines. Pesty was the brave and crazy girl I wish I could be.  I made up the stories on the spot, and none of them were not very good – yet my brother and sister were captivated and I learned the wonder of those four magical words … *once upon a time.*

Why You Want to Create Impact

In the last 15 years, I’ve had the chance to work with a lot of communicators. I’ve made films for churches, shared stories for sermon series, produced events and conferences, and created promos for organizations. And in all that time, I’ve never met anyone – a leader or pastor, a teacher or preacher, a creative or communicator – who didn’t care about impacting their audience.

Every communicator I’ve ever met wants to create impact, to get something across in a powerful way that resonates. That desire is pretty universal. Whether we’re telling a joke, teaching a class, or trying to make a point to our spouse, we are hardwired to convey our message to other people. This instinct lives deep within us, the desire to communicate an idea in order to enact some sort of response.

How to Get Moving On Your Video Edit

Sunday’s coming. 

It started with an email. Then there was a meeting. Interviews were filmed. B-roll was shot. Now everything you’ve worked on is sitting on a hard drive. And it's waiting, waiting for you to edit it into a work of art, transforming it into a masterpiece. 

The people around you have high hopes. It’ll be so awesome, maybe the best thing they’ve ever seen. People will clap. Maybe it’ll go viral and you’ll be a huge deal. They can’t wait to see what you come up with.

Why We Hesitate to Share Our Story

Remember Show and Tell? 

Back in a simpler America, elementary school teachers would give the class an assignment once or twice a year – bring something from home and tell us about it and what it means to you. Apparently, this idea was originally created by educators in an effort to develop our public speaking skills and build our self-esteem. 

Of course, that only worked if you were popular, had spectacular confidence or brought something you knew would impress everybody. Otherwise you felt panic. You felt dread. When your name was called, your face flushed and your ears started ringing. You stood up and ‘dead-man-walking’d’ your way up to the front of the class to face the charges against you … boring, lame, unacceptable.

The Biggest Mistake I Ever Made in Storytelling

We live in an age when everything is accessible, automated and easier than it used to be. 

Not that long ago, booking a flight across the country used to mean calling a travel agent. Finding a good book meant a trip to the library or Barnes & Noble. Watching a movie meant going to the theater or maybe Blockbuster. Doing stuff meant actually leaving your house. Now technology brings everything straight to us.

I think it's fair to say that, until the last 10 or 15 years, it’s not likely that many of us would be making films, editing photos and producing content the way we are today. I’m a product of this age. Many of us are.

What to Do When You Get Stuck

One of the worst-kept secrets of creative people is that – from time to time, more often than we’d like to admit – we hit a wall. A lot of people imagine that creatives – storytellers, filmmakers, musicians, designers – live in a world of constant wonder and inspiration. We’re the idea people. Creativity is fun, right?

The truth is that anyone who does creative work will tell you (if they’re honest) that it’s normal to feel stuck every once in awhile. Sometimes we’re inspired. Other times we’re just trying to make a deadline. Sometimes our work has tons of clarity and focus, and we’re convinced that it will make the world a better place. Other times we simply get lost halfway in the process. And one of our greatest fears is that we’ll stay stuck forever.

So how do we get un-stuck?

As you might have guessed, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Every person is different, everyone’s process is unique. Some of us thrive on planning and structure. Some of us thrive on spontaneity and gut instinct. But there are some principles to help you maneuver around your personal roadblocks and get you moving again.

One of the best insights I’ve ever come across about navigating the creative process was from Steven Spielberg. He was asked how he stayed inspired and productive as a creative professional, where his ideas came from and how he executed them so well. I thought his answer was profound. I’m paraphrasing, but it went something like this …

As a creative professional, it’s as if you’ve been handed a passport. And this passport allows you free passage between the different regions of your brain. The first region – we’ll call it the childlike daydreamer, the awe-filled, inspired, irresponsible part of your brain – this is where all your beautiful ideas are born and can stay safely sheltered. Then there’s the other part – we’ll call it the region of experienced adulthood, the grown-up who gets how the world works and knows what it takes to survive. 

As a person who creates, you have to access both regions. Otherwise you’ll get stuck. If you get stuck in your kid brain, your beautiful ideas won’t mean much to anyone else, because they’ll never cut it in the grown-up world. But if you get stuck in your grown-up brain, you’ll talk yourself out of ideas that aren’t fully formed yet. You’ll play it safe, avoid too much risk, and end up inspiring no one.

A light bulb went on when I heard this, and it’s helped me ever since. So often when I get creatively stuck, I’m either lacking inspiration (stuck in my grown-up brain) or lacking discipline (stuck in my kid brain.) Part of getting un-stuck is pulling out the passport and crossing the border, reconnecting with the thing I’ve been missing out on.

So when you’re feeling stuck and uninspired, like you haven’t had a good idea in a really long time, it’s probably worth spending some time doing things you really love to do. Research shows that when we’re at play, at rest or away from our everyday tasks (ie: on a walk or in the shower), our unconscious has more space to problem-solve and come up with great ideas and solutions. Einstein is quoted as saying that “creativity is the residue of wasted time.” So ‘waste’ a little time (or take that long overdue Sabbath) and you‘ll do your creative kid brain a giant favor.

On the other hand, if you’re feeling stuck and directionless, like you can’t make forward progress on your project, it might be time to embrace some structure. This could be as simple as writing down your to-do list for the day or getting your ideas out on notecards, just getting things out of your head and onto paper. Maybe it means setting a timer so that you stay focused for the next couple hours, or quitting / silencing every piece of technology that pulls you away from your work. Hunker down and get a good day’s work done. You’ll feel like a responsible citizen again, and your grown-up brain will thank you.

Maybe the best insight to getting creatively un-stuck is realizing that you’re not creating alone. 1 Corinthians 3:9 says that we are co-workers with God. If we’re in God’s Kingdom, we get to co-create with our Creator, which when you think about it is pretty phenomenal. That means that, when you get stuck, you have heaven’s resources to draw upon. God’s the One who created you, after all. Ask Him what your next step looks like.

Getting stuck is normal. But getting un-stuck is crucial, because people need to hear the stories you have to tell.