A few days ago I had a moment of sheer panic because I couldn’t find a pen. I went through the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross stages of penlessness (Denial: Maybe I don’t need a pen? I don’t need a pen! Anger: Where is my goddamned pen?! Bargaining: If you give me your pen, O nice, accommodating waiter, I’ll leave you a bigger tip) and finally got to the final stage, Acceptance: Alternatives to Pen.
I desperately needed a pen because I had an idea. And I feared that it would slip away from me before I could write it down. My ideas are very slippery and they disappear quickly, easily abetted by distraction. And so I’ve developed a routine of pulling out a notebook and writing them down before they escape, and this process is so much a part of my innate behavior at this point that missing either the pen or the notebook creates an intolerable amount of anxiety about idea loss.
In this case, I resorted to my smartphone and emailed myself the note with a category heading in the subject line. And all was technically fine. But it’s not my preferred method.
My preferred method for idea capture is something akin to Steven Berlin Johnson’s idea of keeping a “spark file” which he’s written about on Medium. (Johnson is a prolific and versatile writer who has covered a wide range of subjects. I would particularly recommend his book The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. It’s rare that “I couldn’t put it down” can be said of a book on disease and city planning, but it’s true in this case.)
He notes, “...Most good ideas (whether they’re ideas for narrative structure, a particular twist in the argument, or a broader topic) come into our minds as hunches: small fragments of a larger idea, hints and intimations. Many of these ideas sit around for months or years before they coalesce into something useful.”
In order to exploit this particular quality of idea formation, he keeps what he calls a “spark file”: “A single document where I keep all my hunches: ideas for articles, speeches, software features, startups, ways of framing a chapter I know I’m going to write, even whole books.” He doesn’t try to organize them. The randomness is intentional. He reads them over every few months and finds themes emerging — connections between fragments that wouldn’t seem apparent if those fragments were presented in isolation.
I do something similar myself — making disjointed notes in a notebook, entering them into a master file, and reviewing after long stretches.
I’ll do it anywhere but I definitely have venues and times that are more productive than others. Modes of transportation are particularly fertile — subways, airplanes, trains. Areas where I can be alone while sitting in a room full of people — coffee shops, dinner solo at a bar, jury duty — are ripe for observation. The evening works better than the morning, but mostly because I’m more alert at the end of the day than the beginning.
But for me, the note-taking works primarily because I have learned to separate my putative spark file from my task list. If I feel the impulse to make a note to myself about something that needs to be done, I put it somewhere else — my actual to-do list or a list of potential projects.
In Scott Belsky’s book, Making Ideas Happen (also recommended, especially if you manage people in a creative industry), he distinguishes between ideas and “action steps” — separating your notes, sketches, etc., from things that need to be done.
This may not be true of everyone, but I find that I’m the most creatively fruitful when I approach pure creative work and execution separately. If I start with the execution, I’m much more limited in how I think about what I want to accomplish. I won’t pursue a story idea further because I think it’s going to take more time than I have. I won’t explore an article topic because I don’t have all the research at hand. I don’t want potential action steps to make pursuing a new idea seem too intimidating or insurmountable. So I keep separate files for those — mostly task lists associated with specific projects and a master list for overall prioritization.
I also have something called a “backburner file ” — also a Belsky invention — a task list for pie-in-the-sky projects that are interesting but not high priority. (One such backburner project that I can say with 99% confidence I will never do: No Comment Magazine, a monthly publication consisting exclusively of write-arounds on famous people who won’t talk to the press.)
For those of us comfortable with the digital age, the plethora of note-taking apps makes idea capture fingertip-convenient. I’ve used Evernote for work purposes and keep most of my idea files in Google Docs. But that said, my first medium for idea capture is still pen and paper — usually in a highly disposable three-by-five paper notebook that I carry everywhere and fill up at a rate of about one a month. This is partly a function of immediacy (I don’t have to open an app and find a file) and partly a function of the fact that I’m terrible at typing on a smartphone and it takes me longer to get the words down if I try to do it digitally. But I also like the romance of physical handwriting, even though my atrocious penmanship falls somewhere between “five-year-old” and “average medical professional” and this sometimes means I’m unable to decipher pieces of what I wrote. I concentrate less when I’m typing and my first drafts often have missing phrases because my fingers have failed to catch up with my thoughts. Writing things down enforces slowness, and by extension, thoughtfulness.
Notes from a random page of my notebook:
news ticker on a story about Newtown shootings: “Experts say that it is okay to tell your children that you don’t know why it happened.”
fish on antidepressants swim away from the pack
Short story about twins named Elemental and Ephemeral
From Solomon: “The biggest stress is humiliation; the second is loss. The best defense, for people with a biological vulnerability, is a ‘good enough’ marriage, which absorbs external humiliations and minimizes them.”
Everything is an idea for something, something that touches the imagination, a fact that seems relevant or maybe just a statement I find interesting — either because it resonates or because I disagree. All of it is fodder for continued work or thinking on the topics. It’s also important to me to record the ideas that my instincts tell me are bad. (Elemental and Ephemeral? I definitely scribbled that one at a bar.)
Sometimes they contain a germ of something good. Sometimes they serve as contrast, existing simply to remind me that there are better ideas worth pursuing.
One model for me is Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s Waste Books. Lichtenberg was an eighteenth century German physicist whose scientific accomplishments have become somewhat overshadowed by the popularity of notes he took on English transactional ledgers (informally called “waste books”) that were later published by his sons. His waste books are a collection of short personal reflections and quotations covering a wide range of topics and infused with wit. He is the master of the aphorism (“We have the often thoughtless respect accorded ancient laws, ancient usages and ancient religion to thank for all the evil in the world”) but peppers the notebooks with whimsical observations (“They sneezed, wheezed, coughed and made two other kinds of sound for which we have no words in German”). They are idea rich, and not always rich with good ideas. And I like to imagine they probably went a long way in shaping the rest of his professional life.
That’s certainly the case with Joan Didion, who writes in her classic essay, “On Keeping a Notebook” (which you can find in her essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem), that she keeps a notebook not to record what happened (she has no interest in keeping a diary), but to record details as they felt to her. “We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensées,” she writes. “We are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.”
If I go back through my ersatz spark file now, each note triggers the memory of something I was thinking at the time, but the fragments look disjointed and nonsensical. It’s a text that is, per Didion, meaningful only to me.