[Note: I meant for this to go out last Friday, but WordPress ate the original post, which, of course, was untarnished genius and is now forever lost in the electronic ether, and there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth. So here it is again. Not nearly as genius as the first, lost post, of course. Lightning in a bottle and all that.]
When I was a kid, I tried on numerous occasions to keep a diary (like every other girl in the history of ever). I bought cute little books complete with tiny locks and tiny keys that I would secrete away somewhere, maybe wear around my neck on a chain. I resolved to write every day, starting each entry with the requisite “Dear diary,” describing in brilliant, breathless prose how the cutest boy in school smiled at me, how mean the popular girls were, how unfair and oppressive an eight o’clock bedtime was. I dreamed of how I would hide the diary under my bed, where my mom would find it and read it cover to cover to my dramatic mortification.
I never got past day 3.
In 7th grade, my language arts teacher Ms. Fornes required us to keep a journal. Unlike a diary, she explained, a journal was something you took along with you and wrote in whenever the mood struck you. You could write about things that happened in your life, sure, but you could also write random thoughts, story ideas, music lyrics, anything. My journal was a black marbled theme book with a patch of blue floral contact paper on the front, and I wrote in it obsessively. Of course, I was an unhappy, angsty twelve year old, so the journal turned out to be Exhibit A for why I should have been in therapy rather than a work of scintillating genius for the ages. But it did teach me the value of having something with me at all times where I could write my thoughts.
I’ve been keeping a writer’s journal for years now, and it’s an invaluable tool that I recommend for any writer, for the simple reason that inspiration comes from everywhere. People often ask writers where they get their ideas, like there’s some secret stream they go to and pan out a few amazing ideas like nuggets of gold. But that’s not how it works. We are all surrounded by ideas 24/7. The two secrets to gathering those ideas are training yourself to see them, and writing them down before you forget.
- Get something to write on that you can carry around with you. I use a one subject spiral bound notebook because I use a messenger bag instead of a purse and it fits perfectly. If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t carry anything you can’t fit in your pockets, you might want to try a notepad, or index cards. Or give your phone a try! It doesn’t work for me, but it may work for you.
- As you go through your daily life, try to be aware of what catches your attention. It can be anything: a song lyric, a t-shirt, a memory. (Yesterday, I noted a quote from Ernest Hemingway, a store a friend was talking about called Unclaimed Baggage (they literally sell items from luggage that nobody picks up at the airport. How cool is that?) and a memory of a nun who came to talk to our church about her convent’s ministry of giving the homeless dying a place to spend their last days and sitting with them through their last hours.)
- When you notice it (or as soon thereafter as possible), write it down. It doesn’t have to be long and flowery; a short notation will do.
- At the end of the day, look over what you wrote down, and pay particular attention to the things that speak to you the second time around. They don’t have to stay within the bounds of the original thought or observation. Let your imagination take the ideas to new and different places.
Feel this out for a couple days, and see if it works for you. If you make a habit of it, you can let more time pass before going over what you’ve written down. My habit is to read through each notebook when I’ve filled it. This happens on a variable time scale – I’ve filled a notebook in a month, and I’ve had the same notebook in my bag for two years (the edges discoloring, the wire spine bending and coming apart. I don’t recommend it.) I’ve gotten several stories out of my little jotted observations, and my novel started as a written musing on the mothman legend (and that’s a perfect example of how an idea can start one way, then take you in a completely different direction: mothman to ghosts). Even if only a few ideas pan out into actual fiction, though, the journal will also remind you that the world around us is deep, and full of fascinating things that we will forget if we don’t make note of them.