Fourth, discipline requires some sort of idea-saving system. If every time you have a burst of inspiration, it lights up your world for a minute or two and then vanishes, it won’t have much impact on your writing. Consider your lifestyle, your usual activities, and what you’re usually doing when you get brainstorms. Then custom-design a system or systems for collecting and storing your insights and ideas.
What sort of system? Maybe you’re especially creative just before you go to sleep or when you wake up. Then a pad of paper and a writing implement on your night table and possibly a special light so you don’t bother your partner should do the trick. Maybe you get your best ideas while driving. Instead of the pad of paper method, which wouldn’t be safe, set up your cellphone in the hands-free mode so you can talk your ideas out loud and refer to them again later.
If you’re the sort who scribbles thoughts on napkins, paper bags, and the margin of the newspaper, that’s fine. Just don’t send them through the laundry still in the pockets of your pants. Make sure you have a box or a file folder at home to save your scraps of brilliance.
What if you experience a flood of ideas when you haven’t anything to record them, let’s say while you’re running? Here’s what I do. I can hang onto about four consecutive but distinct and fairly complicated thoughts for about a half-hour or 45 minutes, until I get to a pen and paper, by doing as follows. As an idea passes, I’ll choose a keyword or phrase for each, “put it on” a finger of my right hand, so to speak, and repeat it to myself under my breath as I touch that finger to my thumb. I’ll do the same with succeeding ideas, so that at the end of the run I might have four keywords on four fingers that I’m moving as I say, for example, “milk,” “dogs,” “infinity” and “voters,” over and over again. For me, invoking my auditory and kinesthetic senses for short-term memory works well.
A friend of mine uses color-coded folders to keep track of multiple projects and kinds of information. My own file folders are monochrome – manila. I have a small spiral notebook in which I jot down ideas for my weekly email newsletter. I have also used a huge drawing pad on which I sketched ideas and plans in words and pictures in colored markers.
Some writers who are visually oriented use bulletin boards where they tack up their current ideas or stick Post-it notes directly on the wall in various groupings. Hunter Thompson, the guy who invented gonzo journalism, once couldn’t get it together to write a book proposal, so he pinned photos, lists, and props signifying different aspects of the book to a corkboard and shipped it air freight to New York City a day before he flew there himself to meet with editors. As an alternative to book proposals, this is pretty expensive and risky, but as a way of keeping track of ideas, you might find it appealing.
I read about a similar system in a book called Drumming at the Edge of Magic, by Mickey Hart. He was a drummer for the Grateful Dead and became obsessed with the meaning and origins of percussion. To be able to see all the information he was collecting, he posted it all in an empty barn, which didn’t stay empty for long. Soon his giant timeline of questions, ideas, and facts snaked 60 feet around the barn. Hart called his timeline “The Anaconda” and installed special lights so he could spotlight and ponder specific sections.
Do you have any system for saving and collecting your inspirations? If not, what method or methods might work for you? Think about that element of discipline, then join me in the next lesson on the strategic importance of taking breaks.