Had an enjoyable lunch a few weeks ago with a friend who is a writer. I've been trying to make the time to have lunch with people in different creative fields, to try to explore a bit what makes them tick and how they work. She is currently finishing up a book and it was great to get to hear about her process and progress on the project.
One thing that we talked about was how she got started on the book and how she'd been told to find out what the question was. This would be the motivating question for the whole project. Twyla Tharp talked about a similar idea in her book 'The Creative Habit' when she brings up the notion of the spine of a creative piece. In both cases, the fundamental question or the spine idea of a project are the thing you can keep coming back to when you feel you've lost your way. It is the scaffolding or foundation of a project that gets you started, even if everything else really branches quite far away or heads off in a different direction. The spine might not even be visible in the final work but it is what helps to keep you on track and bind everything together along the way. These core ideas don't need to be complicated, in fact I think there is a value in keeping it simple. As an example, the spine idea for my ironman triathlon project is to show the everyman aspect of the participants. That idea helps keep the project grounded, to try to show the normality surrounding the huge task the participants have set themselves.
I was intrigued to find this same idea being expressed by two different people within a couple of weeks. Maybe this could be one of the design patterns for creativity that Merlin Mann is looking out for? Certainly it is a simple notion but it also seems to be a fundamental concept. Find the spine or driving question and keep it somewhere you can see it every day as you work on the project. This might also be a good starting point for thinking about a SoFoBoMo project - discover what the spine of the idea is that you want to work on and run with it. Last year I wanted to explore different expressions and how quickly those change. I wanted to show that a photograph freezes one of those instants but that it really doesn't hold any truth about the subject. The spine helps with the shooting and also helps with the editing. Any time you feel stuck it is the thing to go back to.