The Creative Compost File – or Where do You Get Your Ideas?

By Elizabeth Engstrom

One of the most valuable items at my desk is in my file drawer. It is a folder entitled “Creative Compost.” This is my gold mine and it is thick with odds and ends.

When I’m doing my daily ten-minute keep-the-pen-moving practice exercises, and I happen onto something tasty, at the end of the ten minute exercise, I rewrite the good idea, or the good passage, and slip it into the compost file. When I have an unusual dream, or meet someone with a great name, or hear a story that could evolve into wonderful fiction, or encounter someone with a distinctive speech pattern, I waste no time in writing it down and putting it into my compost file. A song lyric. A weird news item. The intriguing juxtaposition of words. A spiritual concept presented by a friend. Any number of things that captivate, confound or amuse me find a home in that file.


Do I ever refer to it? No. Just like I never refer to the coffee grounds, once they’re thrown into the garden compost pile in my back yard. I just leave them there to work.

And work they do.

I have come to believe that it is the act of cutting the item out, or writing it down and putting it into the compost file that cements it in my mind. Just like the elusive dream that evaporates before noon unless I relate it to someone or write it down, so does the Great Idea unless I actively do something with it. Or like the discarded banana peel—it isn’t much all by itself. But throw it onto the soil, rich with micro-organisms, the roots of a nearby rosebush to encourage the decomposition, and hungry worms to digest it properly, and voila! That old banana peel becomes something worthwhile.

And so it is with the bits and pieces within my file folder. It adds to the fertility of the mind. It combines its nutrients with others in the mental digestive process. Just like the backyard stuff, good stories stem from a combination of nutrients. It is the blending of character, setting, and conflict. What comes out of the compost pile is pure gold for the garden and what comes out of the compost file is pure gold for my writing.

I went through my compost file about two years ago for the first time in maybe ten years, because it had become so thick it was taking over my file drawer, and discovered that I had used probably eighty percent of the things in it. I cleaned it out and began again.

That was a simple act of turning the compost. I’ll do it a little more often now, but not too often. Some of those ideas are kind of woody and fibrous and need time to break down and blend in.

So I just keep on adding to that file and keep my trust in the process.

One thought on “The Creative Compost File – or Where do You Get Your Ideas?

  1. This is such a wonderful idea – something like inspiration box, but with focus on our own ideas we can develop further. This can be translated into a very useful tool each writer should have. Great post and thanks for sharing 🙂

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