By Dr. Noelle Sterne
At nine minutes to go at night, right before the climax of the action-adventure-intrigue TV movie, I always fall asleep. I never know how the ends got tied up, the hero(ine) got untied, or why the tie-dyed shirt gave the killer away. Then I stagger off to bed, murmuring excuses to my husband about having worked too hard.
But the moment I stretch into the expanse of the bed, groaning with pleasure at its snug comfort, something inexplicable happens. I’m wide awake—and worse, or better—my mind churns: ideas for the current writing project, revisions for two others on my desk, three brand-new ideas, and four sparkling phrases floating across my brain for some still-unnamed piece. I’m as alert as a kid waiting for Disneyland at dawn. And sure I’ll remember everything tomorrow.
But I don’t. Slivers of ideas swirl like water down the sink.
These poignant and enraging forgettings have got me thinking about ideas—where they come from, why, what feeling charge they carry, why they linger or nag.
For example, barren as I may be at my desk, does a break—for dinner, wine, treadmill, even stupid television—prompt invisible germination? Do ideas actually need a slow, silent, warm, comforting place to grow, like baby bears in winter? Does lying flat in bed propel the thoughts to rise up and peek out?
Does one idea egg on another? Often, yes. Does not thinking paradoxically lead to the surfacing of related ideas, or solutions to the current writing problem, impasse, exasperation, fault of logic? Sometimes, providentially, yes.
When we realize our minds can work in these ways, we may be more open to allowing the dreaded “unproductive” times, the ones where we’re not writing but carrying out the rest of life’s requirements or, finally, taking a break. Acceptance of the peculiar behavior of ideas also helps us encourage and collar them, awake or trying to sleep. If you’ve had grog-to-alert experiences like mine, and you’re certain those fronds of ideas will all be fresh the next day and then regret your hubris when you morning mind is blank, here are few rules for trapping them—and in usable forms.
* * * * * *
- Don’t trust your mind to remember. I’ve invented all sorts of tricks: assigning elaborate mnemonic devices (DCDROOGWTW: Do Character Description Right Out of Gone With the Wind), repeating the thought over and over, visualizing my mind as a giant file cabinet and “filing” the thought, shouting internally to REMEMBER! All such methods do nothing but interfere with my sleep. As clear, sharp, and superb as our ideas may be at night, and as convinced we are of our excellent memory, we‘ll remember .01 to none tomorrow.
- So, keep a scratch pad/notebook/cards/tape recorder/Ipad/phone voice memo app next to your bed within easy reach. I graduated recently from a pocket-size notebook to a full-size clipboard.
- Keep pens/stylus in the same place.
- Turn on the light to get down your thoughts. Brimming with creative bounty, cavalier and overconfident I’ve often grabbed my clipboard and pen in the dark and started writing like mad. In the morning, when I look at the words, they’re completely unintelligible, splattered, jagged diagonals running over the page like a drunken sonnet.
- Sit up to write. An effort, I know. Sometimes, fatigue creeping back, I’ve compromised by reclining. I scribble like a demon and, sated, slide down again. Next day’s result: see #4.
- Open your eyes to write. If you’re like me, your mind is a vast field, largely unexplored. With ideas rising up, your best move is to capture the gleaming thought with your eyes closed to minimize distractions. But when I keep my eyes shut to catch the ideas on paper, even though I race like a pen on wheels, I get the same rueful result: see #4.
- If you use a pen, make sure it has ink(!). Sometimes, after writing like butter in the dark, I discover in the harsh daylight that the pen ran dry and only light grooves are visible on the paper. I could stab myself with the empty pen. Keep an auxiliary pencil at the ready.
- When, during your scrawl-fest, your male Significant Other bursts in with the crucial news that the Yankees/Red Sox/Titusville Sluggers just whacked the championship-winning homer, or your female S.O. screeches that the baby just spit-up on her good shoes, signal firmly that you don’t want to hear it. You can deal with the fallout in the morning. Your S.O. slamming around for a few days, staring at you in silence, or boycotting filling the gas tank are small prices for all the precious ideas you’ve corralled.
* * * * * *
It’s no use, as you too may have experienced, to fight the ideas that surface. They knock and intrude and keep us awake. They seem to have lives of their own, springing to life with spontaneous generation piqued by the present incomplete work and dividing like proto-cells.
Attempting to stop or dismiss the ideas doesn’t work. Maybe they “disappear” for a time, but they leave a trail, shadow, residue, of un-ease, unfinished business, the low-grade frustration we may not be able to name that interferes with our production, not to mention our sleep.
Better to yield to them, follow their lead, like curious children on a wooded path. Better to watch where they go, how they multiply and take this trail or that, and know we can take either or both in succession.
And so, much better, especially in bed, to force ourselves to sit up, flick on the light, squint in the over-brightness, and get the little beauties down. Whether or not we eventually use any or all of our ideas, we should value them, cherish them, respect them. They herald our limitless creativity.
When you accept the eccentricities of ideas and use these rules, or your own variations, you won’t have to keep trying to remember your out-of-nowhere stunning thoughts. The effort won’t keep you up and you won’t hate yourself in the morning when all you can recall is a maddening shadow of the idea. Having scribbled it down, you will sigh with completeness—at least for the moment—and drift off to sleep. And in the new day, you’ll actually retrieve, read, use, and be thankful for those mysteriously appearing and glorious ideas that you obediently recorded writing in bed.
© 2017 Noelle Sterne
DR. NOELLE STERNE
Author, editor, writing coach, workshop leader, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 400 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, and short stories. Publications include Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Coffeehouse For Writers, Funds for Writers, InnerSelf, New Age Journal, Pen & Prosper, Sasee, Story Monsters Ink, Unity Magazine, Writer’s Journal, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest. Academic editor and coach, with the Ph.D. from Columbia University, she helps doctoral students wrestling with their dissertations and publishes articles in several blogs for dissertation writers. Her book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books) contains examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Her book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) further aids doctoral candidates to award of their degrees. Website: http://www.trustyourlifenow.com/
Author, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams. Unity Books, 2011.
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