Sunday, April 1, 2012

Trueblood's Idea Farm

In the mid-1970s, I had the privilege of attending a writers' conference with D. Elton Trueblood at Earlham College. Trueblood was one of the most respected Christian writers of that day, and his work ranged across an incredible variety of topics. Someone in our group asked, "How do you decide what you'll write about next?"

Remember, this was forty years ago. Long before Google. Before the Internet. Before personal computers, for goodness' sake.

Trueblood said, "I read widely, and when I come across an article that piques my curiosity, I clip it out and put it in a manila folder. When I hear a comment on a news broadcast or in a sermon catches my attention, I make note of it (He pulled a tiny looseleaf binder from his coat pocket) and I put it in another folder. I write a topic on the folder and put it in the drawer. When I find something else related to that topic, I add it to the folder. So when I've finished writing an article or book, I open the file drawer and look for the thickest folder. It's probably the subject ripest for development because I've been thinking about it longer than anything else. But if not, I go to the next thickest folder."

How many folders did he have at that time? Over forty. He called it his "idea farm."

As far as I can tell, Trueblood never wrote fiction, but we fiction writers can benefit from his method for cultivating ideas. With today's technology, it's easier than ever.

I have used myBase ( and OneNote (, both of which allow me to take freehand notes or capture pages from websites. Another intriguing tool, which I haven't tried, is AudioNotetaker. Its developers say it allows you to dictate notes and file them as audio files on your computer. (See Of course, if I'm not inclined to use the computer, I can fall back on Elton Trueblood's pencil, scisssors, and manila folder method.

Whatever the method, we need to capture and cultivate ideas wherever we come across them, because someday the current project will be finished and we'll wonder, What's next?


  1. Thanks for your article on Elton Trueblood's method on what to write next.

    Last year, I read his book "The Incendiary Fellowship." Non-fiction, but I found it very eye-opening and influential in looking at ministry (though there are areas of theology I disagree with him on).

    How did I learn about this book, by the way? Well, one old hymn I discovered fairly recently was "Brethren, We Have Met To Worship." Looking in the Baptist Hymnal, I discovered that two other songs had the same tune (Holy Manna). One of the two was titled "God, Whose Purpose Is To Kindle". The words were written by ... you guessed it. D. Elton Trueblood, and the song was taken from the above mentioned book. Actually, he wrote the words for the tune Hyfrydol (the tune for "Our Great Savior" and "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus" -- same meter as Holy Manna), and that the Baptist Hymnal took out the "Thou"s and put "God" instead (still being sung to God).

    Have a blessed day.


  2. Oh, one more bit of information. Trueblood is former leader of the World Council of Churches, and has a Quaker background. Thought some of you might find that of interest.


  3. This is great. Never thought of my files as a neglected idea farm. So cool. Thanks...