By: Noelle Sterne
“The irritating question they ask us — us being writers — is: “Where do you get your ideas?” And the answer is: Confluence. Things come together. The right ingredients and suddenly: Abracadabra!”―
Ideas: Where and Why and Why Now?
At nine minutes to go in primetime, 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, groggy, berating myself about having worked too hard.
But the moment I stretch into the expanse of the bed, groaning with pleasure at its snug comfort, I’m wide awake. And worse (or better)—my mind churns. All of a sudden, the shirt doesn’t matter, but I’m thinking about:
- More research for the current writing project
- Revisions for two others on my desk
- Three brand-new plots
- Four sparkling, surely genius phrases that float 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.
The Strange Nature of Ideas
These poignant and enraging forgettings 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? Like baby bears in winter, do ideas actually need a slow, silent, warm, comforting place to grow? 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, solutions to the current writing problem, impasse, exasperation, and faulty 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.
How to Remember
If you’ve had grog-to-alert experiences like mine, and you’re sure those fronds of ideas will all be fresh the next day and then regret your hubris when your morning mind is blank, here are a 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.
- Keep a scratchpad/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.
- Park 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. When I look at the words in the morning, they’re entirely 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 surging, your best move is to capture the gleaming thought with your eyes closed to minimize distractions. But when I shut my eyes to catch the ideas on paper, I get the same rueful result: #4 again, even though I race like a pen on wheels.
- If you use a pen, make sure it has ink(!). Sometimes, after writing like butter in the dark, I discover that the pen ran dry, and only light grooves are visible on the paper in the harsh daylight. 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 spat up on her good shoes, signal firmly that you don’t want to hear it. You can deal with the fallout in the morning. To have your S.O. slamming around for a few days, staring at you in silence, or petulantly letting the gas tank go empty are small prices for all the precious ideas you’ve corralled.
Don’t Fight the Ideas
“When I am completely myself, entirely alone… or during the night when I cannot sleep, it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how these ideas come I know not nor can I force them.”―
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, residue, of unease, unfinished business, low-grade frustration we may not be able to name that interferes with our production, not to mention our sleep.
Make Peace with Your Muse
Better to yield to the ideas and 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, it’s much better, especially in bed, to force ourselves to sit up, flick on the light, squinting 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, and appreciate our muse-who-doesn’t-sleep. 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 are maddening shadows.
Having scribbled them down, you’ll sigh with completeness—at least for the moment—and, satisfied, drift off to sleep. In the new day, you’ll retrieve, read, use, and be thankful for those mysteriously appearing and glorious ideas that you obediently recorded, writing in bed.
Bio: Dr. Noelle Sterne
Dr. Noelle Sterne is an author, editor, writing coach, writing and meditation workshop leader, spiritual counselor, and gentle nag, Noelle has published over 700 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, short stories, and occasional poems.
Author Magazine: https://www.authormagazine.org/search?q=noelle
Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation, A PowerPoint Teaser: http://trustyourlifenow.com/more-for-dissertation-writers/challenges-in-writing-your-dissertation-a-little-teaser/
Journal of Expressive Writing: https://www.journalofexpressivewriting.com/post/i-don-t-have-to-be-amanda-gorman
Life and Everything After: https://lifeandeverythingafter.com/angel-in-the-mall/
Women on Writing: https://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/55-How2-MatchQuerytoManuscript.html
Publications include: Chicken Soup for the Soul (sixth story forthcoming November 2021) Mused, Romance Writers Report, Ruminate, Sasee, Textbook and Academic Authors Association blog (monthly), Thesis Whisperer, Transformation Coaching (bimonthly), Two Drops of Ink blog, Unity Daily Word, Unity Magazine, WE Magazine for Women, Women in Higher Education, Writing and Wellness, and The Writer.
In July and August 2018, she was one of six webinar presenters for TAA’s “Writing Gym.” Her topic: “Get Started, Continue Your Draft, and Finish”, which continues to be offered. Dr. Sterne is also one of several coaches in TAA’s program of free one-hour academic coaching to members.
She also contributes pieces to other national and international publications on dissertation issues and writing. In July and August 2018, she, was one of six webinar presenters for its “Writing Gym.” Her topic: “Get Started, Continue Your Draft, and Finish”, which continues to be offered.
Taking her own advice (hard as it may be), she is completing her third novel.
Dr. Sterne’s books
Columnist:Two Drops of Ink
Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing
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