by Nina Badzin
I see essay, short story, and book ideas as butterflies, with me as a curious child running through the yard with a mediocre net trying to capture them all. “If it’s a good idea, you’ll remember it eventually,” is a statement I’ve seen various times, but has rarely been true in my case.
I have what I consider a rational fear of losing my ideas – it’s happened countless times. In the middle of dinner with friends I might hear a line of dialogue that could work in a story, but if I don’t write it down in the moment, it’s gone. While I’m reading a book or an article, I often find the kernel of an idea for my own essay, but unless I capture the thought, even as a two-word note that will jog my memory later, I am likely never to think of it again.
A friend once advised me to tell myself, “I will remember,” otherwise I’ll train my brain to stop trying. She’s probably correct, but decades too late. And now with my intricate system of an ever-present notebook, Siri reminders, a list in my iPhone’s notes section (iCloud remembers!), an organized idea list on my laptop, a cut-from-other-essays document, a crowded drafts folder, and an entirely separate system for capturing my published work involving both Dropbox and an actual printer and several binders, I have long given my mind permission to take a permanent vacation.
I think I’ve succeeded in capturing the majority of my ideas, but I will not say it’s efficient or easy. The first challenge I face in my methods is risking the rudeness of taking out my phone to jot down a note when an idea occurs, which is the reason I carry a notebook everywhere. The notebook still interrupts conversation, but is (I hope) significantly less obnoxious. I’m never secretive about what I’m doing and with certain companions I will say, “I thought of a potential story idea,” and I find that most friends agree it’s a good idea or tell me why it’s not and then we continue our discussion. On walks with friends I’ve been known to ask Siri to remind me of an idea later in the evening, which is when I’ll add it to the phone’s notes.
Every two weeks or so I review the list in my electronic notes and the one from the barely legible phrases in the notebook and if I still like the ideas, I move them to one of two expanded Word documents on my laptop. One document called “organized essay ideas” is, per its title, organized by seven topics and written in expanded bullet points, some as long as two paragraphs. Listed there are currently 97 bullet points.
The other document is simply a list of the random things that came to mind at some point, but are not at the level of “idea” yet and probably never will be. Example: one entry on that random list says, “In middle school I was obsessed with a book by Francine Pascal (of Sweet Valley High fame) called Hanging with Cece,” which had a time travel story. I loved Quantum Leap and most time travel plots now that I think of it. Not essay worthy, but I liked dwelling on that novel in the moment I captured the memory, and I liked remembering watching Quantum Leap with my parents. Perhaps in ten years I’d like to dwell on it again.
If an idea from the organized and expanded bullet points seems essay worthy, I cut and paste those words into a new Word document, which lives in my drafts folder. There are currently 47 drafts, some still in the bullet point phase and some two pages long. I’d estimate that only five of those expanded ideas, maybe less, are still interesting enough (to me) to finish and submit for publication or even put on my own blog. Am I too tough on myself? Perhaps. But if I don’t care, why would anyone else? Not every idea was meant to be shared.
I keep one more Word document called “cut from published essays” where my rare darlings live. I’m talking about the turns of phrases and entire paragraphs that needed to go from a particular piece, but might fit somewhere else another time. I only look at that document once or twice a year, and I’m judicious about what gets to stay there, but I like knowing the document exists.
Finally, twice a year I copy and paste every essay I’ve published around the Internet and blog post on my own site and organize them chronologically in one running Word document. At the end of the year I print out two copies, one to put in a binder in order and the second copy to organize by topic in a different binder, which includes several other years’ pieces. I never look at the binders, but like the document with the rare darlings, I’m at ease knowing they exist.
I’ve asked myself whether there’s a better, less frenzied way to keep my work organized and my writing mind in control, but the only one I can think of is to accept that I will forget most of my ideas and perhaps even forget about things I’ve already published. Perhaps I lack the confidence to trust that I will think of a new idea if I forget the one that’s currently of interest. I may need more than a few tricks to make a change there.
One success I’d like to celebrate: I do not hoard my lists and drafts. I use my ideas, play with them, experiment often, and do not hesitate to toss away the ones that don’t work. I know enough to know that they’re not all butterflies.
Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr.
I’m so glad someone wrote about the idea gathering process. I’ve been curious about what other writers do to collect ideas, what tools they use. I have a similar process, but I keep everything on Google Drive. It’s my writing headquarters and now after reading this, I think I’ll venture to visit my listicles more often and toss out those that were once valuable but may not be anymore. I hadn’t thought of purging regularly, but now it seems like a worthy thing to do! Thanks for this!
Oh good! I’m glad the purging is a helpful idea. I like the idea of using Google Drive, which would be accessible anywhere and wouldn’t require the extra step of dropbox.
I love that image of you chasing ideas as butterflies. I truly relate, and I truly believe that’s why I became a writer and a photographer. Maybe I’m afraid of fading away, thought by thought. I do obsess over losing them, while knowing that if they’re in you, they’re probably there to stay. Sometimes they just go away for awhile and come back better!
Thank you! And I love that idea of the ideas perhaps coming back different and better.
I’m prone to losing ideas and try to jot them down when they occur. However, it’s usually on a receipt or scrap piece of paper , so you can imagine what happens. I am beyond impressed, and inspired, by your process.
How fun to peer into your creative and organized mind, Nina! I agree with Tamara, the image of you chasing down ideas like butterflies is really beautiful and the perfect metaphor. It remind me of how in Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about a poet who sees/imagines poems flying in the air and if she doesn’t catch them someone else will. I do agree with you re ideas disappearing if they’re not written down. I do your first steps of taking notes on pads and on my phone, but I never organize them! Maybe if I did I’d be more productive:)
Yes! I remember that part of Big Magic. I think often about her idea flying to Ann Patchett. Or was it the other way around?
I love the butterfly net image. My writing office is filled with journals for different topics, areas of my life, many with clippings between the pages that relate, folders with published pieces, snippets for future writing, a somewhat organized chaos. Somewhat. I’m pretty good about purging too. I appreciate the ways you organize and you sharing them. I need to organize more of mine on my laptop – I’m becoming somewhat buried in ephemera here.
Organized chaos is the perfect description for what I have going on. And purging is key to not feeling completely overwhelmed.
Nina, I am so impressed with your idea collection and organization. I aspire to a system like yours. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you! And thanks so much for commenting. 🙂
I love that image of you chasing butterflies. It’s so true that ideas flit away all too easily.
I keep a list of blog ideas in my bullet journal but sometimes when I’m working on my editorial calendar, I have no idea what I’d thought was so interesting about something I wrote down. I think, like you do, I need to have the faith to let go of the snippets and move on. In my case, I just leave them on my blog list forever…. 🙂
I left a few pages available in my collections area of my bullet journal. I haven’t touched them yet. I have to see how that will fit in to my system.
Oh boy, do I know of what you speak! I have my own, perhaps equally idiosyncratic, sometimes redundant, always overly obsessive system for ideas, early crap drafts, cut darlings, clips, etc. Always thought if I tried to explain it to anyone else, I’d sound like a crazy person. But no – I’d just sound like you: a writer who understands the fleeting nature of ideas, and the importance of capturing them, and the unreliability of the brain to remember what it should (instead of the family tree on Downton Abbey)! Thanks for this — passing on to my students.
I love that you used the word redundant. That is EXACTLY how my method feels so often, but I continue anyway.
This is interesting! I remember a quote I read once, I think maybe it was Stephen King, that said that if you forget an idea then it probably wasn’t very good anyway. So I’ve always lived by that. Though it’s hard at times because when you first think of something you always think it’s good!
For the most part now I keep all my ideas on my phone in the memo app or my drafts folder in WordPress.
Ah! So maybe it was him. I think once you a get to a certain age, that’s just not true anymore. Sometimes we really just forget.
Nice to know of other “butterfly” minds out there….thanks for the insights into your world and organizational process.