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The Doppler Effect of Creative Ideas: They Come and Go

A Personal Perspective: How to nudge your creativity toward greater consistency.

Last night, my husband and I were preparing to watch Poker Face with our daughter. (If you haven’t seen this new show starring Natasha Lyonne, you should try it. It’s a combination of Columbo–in terms of the hapless hero solving crimes, Pulp Fiction–in terms of its nonlinear plot line, and House–in terms of a new mystery and set of characters each week.)

As we prepared for our viewing, we all posed questions of value, importance, and topic.

Our daughter, who our son describes in Shakespearean terms as "suffers no fools," shot out several questions.

In the melee, with all of us asking and no one answering, she said, “It’s the Doppler effect of questions.”

I smiled because I immediately knew exactly what she meant.

The Doppler effect is the phenomenon of the shift in the pitch of a sound – like a train whistle or a siren –as the origin of the sound approaches and then moves away. Therefore, a Doppler effect question emerges, becomes more persistent and intense, and then fades out –often without an answer.

Today, I’m thinking about how creative activities also experience this phenomenon.

Doppler Effect Ideas

Have you ever had an idea that, when it appears, you hear it loud and clear? But as you work to begin and refine, the contention quiets and fades.

You wonder about your creativity.

Questions like "What was I thinking?" or "Who am I kidding?" and "How do I do that?" come and go, grow and fade, increase, decrease, and evaporate out of existence.

Like that train whistle, eventually, the idea feels like a film negative. It’s a reverse image of its former self. It’s small and shrunken. And then, it’s as if it never existed. The thought makes no sense.

Doppler Effect Projects

When you begin a project, you often have to find your stash of supplies. You look here, there, and everywhere. You get closer. In your mind, you can see the object in your drawer, in the back of your closet, up on that shelf in the front hall.

You can see it, but you can’t find it.

Gathering the hoe, rake, cultivator, and seed pots derails the would-be gardener.

The writer attempts to gather a character’s background, but then they are knocked off course by researching appropriate names. The wannabe author spends so much time planning and plotting that they have no energy left to actually write.

The chef scours the farmer’s market for the freshest ingredients, only to throw out the fresh curly parsley a week later.

The designer hoards fabrics so long that their stash represents a wholly different fashion trend.

The musician practices the crescendo and decrescendo. They make their own doppler effect. But they avoid the audition that might bring them into the spotlight on stage.

Doppler Effect Fans

Fans are fickle!

You know it’s true. As Heidi Klum says on Project Runway, “One day you’re in. The next day you’re out.”

Their ire and dissatisfaction can quickly replace the ebb and flow of fans’ affection with whatever captures their fancy.

Fans fall for fashions.

It’s incredible how bell-bottom pants have come and gone in popularity.

Sometimes it takes years, even decades, for a fashion trend to return.

And some trends–like the bustle and the ruff–will likely never return.

But a wise person once said, “Never say never,” so let’s wait and see.

Fans also fall for celebrities.

I often wonder how much of this fandom relates to an individual’s manager, agent, or editor.

Indeed, PR matters.

Do you seek an audience of adoring fans?

Just be aware that staying in the spotlight takes work, leaving little time for creativity or art-making.

But creation can occur during the lulls.

Doppler Effect Art Forms

Art forms represent big and small in terms of the size of the products created and the art form’s overall realm.

For each of the seven art forms, there exists a micro and maxi product:

  • Literary.  Flash fiction and haiku to epic poems and novel series
  • Visual. Pinhead art and dollhouses to huge canvases and tapestries
  • Fiber. Mini-quilts and cars to bed quilts and wall hangings
  • Environmental.  Bowl terrariums to secret backyard gardens
  • Performing. Jingles and one-liners to five-act plays and symphonies
  • Industrial. Glass-blown bud vase and wooden coaster to hand-carved dining room set and hand-thrown urn
  • Culinary.  The amuse bouche to the twelve-course meal and wedding cake

While this list only touches the surface, isn’t that just the way to the doppler effect?

The size of the art form relates directly to the audience’s proximity.

Doppler Effect Careers

I remember hearing that the average person has seven different jobs in their lifetime.

I didn’t believe this fact when I was young.

I had this strange notion that I would graduate college, get a job at Digital Equipment Corporation, and then forty years later, retire.

But then, I got a job as a temp at Digital. And I wondered, "How could anyone do this all day, let alone for twenty or more years?" Digital Equipment no longer exists, but I’m still working over four decades later.

My first job was babysitting. Then I worked in a factory assembling circuit boards.

In college, my work-study jobs brought me first to the dining hall as the silverware lady and later to the periodicals department of the world’s tallest library.

Out of college, I worked retail in a fabric store. Six years later, I started making money custom sewing. Now, I’m a college professor and writer.

Careers can tantalize our hearts and spirits but also prompt intense aversion.

Likely, in a lifetime, an individual would come and go with excellent and not-so-good jobs.

Try this:

Whatever your goals and dreams for creativity and art, reflect on the Doppler effect and notice the common ebbs and flows as normal, not fatal or even devastating, just ordinary.

Like the change in the whistle’s pitch, as the train approaches and moves away, your creativity will also change in pitch, intensity, production, and popularity.

  • Reflect on a current challenge.
  • Speculate on the worst-case scenario.
  • Then, imagine the best possible outcome.
  • Close your eyes, breathe, and make it happen.

The Doppler effect exists all around us.


The Doppler Effect is the change in the observed frequency of an (electromagnetic) wave due to relative motion of the source and observer. Microclimate for Cultural Heritage (Second Edition), 2014

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