Friday, September 3, 2010

preserving writing thoughts

A few entries ago, Liza wrote about finding a defining sentence and putting it on a sticky note (an idea stemming from Elizabeth Partridge's lecture). It made me think of the many ways we, as writers, work, and also how we preserve our ideas. I remember hearing Joyce Carol Oates speak at a conference. She said that she plots the whole book out and tapes it on pages all along the walls of her office like a map, so that she can keep track of her plots and sub-plots (We mustn't forget about sub-plots, people). Edward Albee said that ideas come to him all the time, but he never writes them down, figuring that, if an idea is any good, it will stick in his brain.

Mapping out a book like Joyce Carol Oates would kill my desire to write it, and destroy the sense of discovery that keeps me working. Trusting my memory like Albee (who was the first person to tell me I had talent as a writer, when I was 22) would be close to a disaster. So when ideas come to me, I write notes on anything handy: napkins, receipts, bank statements, the little notebook Jill gave me that I keep in my purse. I call my home phone from my cell and leave messages for myself. If one of my kids gets home and listens to the messages first they might hear: "She is sucked into a vortex." Or, "The witch drowns in chocolate." My husband Michael also bought me a micro-tape recorder for when I drive. I just can't let one idea escape, although, yes, I often forget about these pieces of paper or lose them. Another process I am teaching my son is to work in stages and drafts, a little each day, comparing it to the instruments he plays (three), how baby steps can add up to something big, something we all know by now, but is nice to remember

It is all about finding your process, your tricks, and your triggers.


  1. Ah, yes, the little pieces of paper. I find them most often on the floor of my car (AKA as "Princess"); usually they are illegible and often have directions to someone's house on one side and something like "The Lone Ranger" scrawled on the other. But once I write them down, chances are the idea sticks in the brain.
    "Into the Vortex" sounds like a great book title.

  2. I can not read my own handwriting, but finding illegible notes likely gets me to interpret them as something completely different than the original thought, and that's probably a good thing.
    I play the plotting game with post-its on my office wall but well after the fifth or sixth (or tenth) draft. I find it very helpful as plot bugs the beegeegees out of me.
    This latest novel-in-progress I'm just handwriting in a journal for an hour or two at a time pretending I am my protagonist. If anyone finds it they'll think it's some crazy person's diary! (which it is....)

  3. Thanks to an idea from Louise Hawes, I bought an old-style composition notebook for my new novel. I've been free writing, making lists, and jotting ideas about characters and plot. Whenever I'm stuck, I go to the notebook to read what's there or write new ideas. Sometimes I ask my main character a question and let him tell me what he thinks about events or characters in the story. I carry it around with me, so I have it whenever I need it.

  4. I use the notebook, too, Debra. My favourite strategy now is diagrams, as I loathe writing any kind of outline, for some reason. But seeing the plot as a flow chart or series of connected boxes works for me, and allows for a lot of experimenting and connecting of subplots.