Yesterday, I went to bed a little earlier than usual (that is to say, while it was still p.m.). Lights were out, blankets perfectly arranged and alarm set for an early writing start. Perfect. I closed my eyes.
Thirty seconds later, a teensy detail about my story lit up against the darkness of my eyelids. I frowned. I can’t be bothered getting up. I’ll remember it. It’s just one little thing. I’ve memorised whole essays before. Easy.
This is a classic scenario. Haven’t we all had this before? ‘Yes Mum, I’ll vacuum later. Oh, we need to buy some toothpicks. I think my main character’s uncle should have a peg leg.’ Most of the time we tell ourselves we’ll remember these minor things – because they are minor. We tend to remember the really big things. But if it’s just something small, we’re sure it’ll occur to us as we get up to writing the scene. We’ll know to include that wonderfully witty dialogue we thought up while waiting to pay for our toothpicks. Sometimes we do remember it and we’re reassured of our mental health. Other times?
Well, let’s just say that we are creatures capable of being distracted from hunger and bursting bladders. We don’t. stop. thinking.
Write it down, everyone says. Carry a notebook, leave a voice memo on your smartphone, write it on the back of your hand, on index cards, on shopping receipts and, in my case, on napkins. It’s really basic advice, expounded to the point of irritation. But I really can’t stress it enough.
I was inconsistent about recording my ideas for so many years and it cost me. I was lazy. But because Camp NaNoWriMo is coming up and I’m schooling myself into a good writing habit, I dusted off my notebook and put it on my bedside table. Just in case. When that plot bunny ran wild while I was about to sleep, I grumbled, turned on the light and scribbled it down. Then I went back to a blissful sleep. Except, of course, it happened again. So I repeated the process, albeit drowsily and reluctantly.
But convincing you to take notes isn’t why I’m writing this post.
See, I had an epiphany as I was writing down those pesky thoughts in the middle of the night. It was about why it was so important to write your ideas down on the spot – and not just to stave off dementia.
It’s because, when that awesome idea first falls from the sky, it gives us a one and only inspirational moment for that idea – a creative window. Each idea has its own window, that only exists at that moment. It won’t stay open for long. Once it’s closed, you will never have the same epiphany for that idea again. Why?
Because everything after that becomes a memory. If you wake up the next morning with the plot bunny thankfully still with you, you are actually remembering that creative window. If, sadly, you forgot the idea overnight then you will just remember that you have to remember something. So chances are, you will not realise the idea with the same freshness again.
In other words, your first experience of a particular idea or thought only happens once in a lifetime.
As with everything else in life, wouldn’t you naturally want to capture that moment?
At least, that was the conclusion I came to (while in PJs and feeling dumb about my silly brain’s timing).
Have you had triumphant moments where you actually remembered the list of things you were thinking of, and wrote them down? It feels good, doesn’t it? For me, it’s a great relief. But it also feels rushed. I’m paying less attention to each point in my hurry to get the rest out. It feels like a burden off my chest. But writing is supposed to be something I enjoy. Hmm.
Another reason to get your ideas down immediately is because your mind is probably more engaged. The window is at its widest. While you write down that one idea, you might suddenly know how to tie it in with everything else, or snap up another idea. Your planning may move along faster. Of course, you can still do this elaboration afterwards, whenever you like. Just pray that it does not happen while you are trying to remember it for later. Just imagine: thinking about idea A and realising ‘hey, this leads into idea B and that character and wow, it parallels idea C here with – omg, I just came up with the best sentence to end the chapter on and-‘
Yeah. It happens. To me, at least. It goes both ways. Linked ideas make it easier to recall because they are related. On the other hand, forget one detail and the whole thing may fall apart.
So please, please, please write down your awesome ideas if you’re not certain you’ll remember it later. If not for future reference, then perhaps for the special ‘once in a lifetime’ experience. I admit I’ve got random notes all over the place. They’re in my Scrivener project, my notebook, err… another notebook, napkins, my iTouch, uni lecture notes, shower door (bad idea; steamed over and I ended up having to painstakingly remember what I’d written). The super quick ones, the ones that help me the most, are actually the ones at the bottom of the Word document I’m working on. I write down dialogue, ideas and reminders for future scenes in the chapter, even if I’ll be up to them in the next two minutes. These scattered ideas probably aren’t the best solution. I forget what I’ve written down, where I’ve put them, when I need them. I’m working on it. But it’s quite nice when I’m scrolling through these places and am surprised by what I’ve written. Then I remember writing it, remember the special moment that idea came to me. And it feels good. Now I can open the window whenever I want.
Of course, I’ve successfully remembered ideas without writing them before (yippee!!). Yes, there were times where I wanted to write them down but literally had no way of doing so. And a big fat yes to having forgotten things. I don’t know how many but even one is one too many.
I’m always saying that all writers are different. It’s a wonderful thing. So do things your own way! Fold a paper crane if it helps you remember. Memorise it if you know you can. Tell someone else to remember it for you (so you have someone to blame if both of you forget). But the next time you’re visited by a plot bunny – or any thought – just try, once, to hold onto that moment the way you would the last ten seconds of December 31st.
We’re having once in a lifetime moments every second of every day, if you think about it. It’s impossible to capture all of them. I’m going to treasure the few that I can :)
P.S. That night was one of the best and worst sleeps I’d ever had.