A few days ago, I attended a talk by Michael Dennis Browne, a two time winner of the Minnesota book award. He spoke on a number of issues, but perhaps the most valuable was the concept of the thought notebook, which I will refer to simply as thoughtbook. Now, back to Michael Dennis Browne. He said that a thoughtbook is a way of capturing the prose and poems you have internalized and kept with you, but haven’t quite brought out yet. He keeps several of these in a year, usually about one a month. This technique won’t be useful for everyone. It’s useful for people who have trouble finding inspiration when trying to write.
The idea is simple, and we are all familiar with it on some level. We just make sure to carry with us a notebook, inside of which we jot down any ideas that occur to us. You probably do this in your school notebook already, when doodling in class. The point being, this isn’t hard to do. But doing it well is. You should be taking down any idea that you fancy as a writer. And I really mean every idea.
One thing you might have noticed about writing: when you sit down to write, your ideas disappear. Of course, this isn’t what actually happens. What happens is that you block your ideas, perhaps out of embarrassment. If you are like me, you want to write something worthwhile. And then you think of all the “worthwhile” things people have written. Hemingway, Dostoevsky, Woolf, Joyce, etc. What you are writing now can’t compare, and that is stifling. It’s hard to write a story about elves and dragons in that light. (Actually it always is, because it’s so cliche.) So what should we do? We ignore the literary establishment.
It’s hard to consciously do this. After all, we all want to respect and well-liked, right? And we would love for people to appreciate our stories. But to try and write a story or poem because you think it will be respect is selling yourself out, and it isn’t creative.
This is where the thoughtbook comes into play. Whenever you have a creative or original idea, just write it down, and forget about it. Make it a ritual to capture whatever idea you come across. Your respectability filter isn’t active when you are doing this, so your creativity is allowed to flow. I would know, my notebooks are full of all sorts of disreputable stuff. (“like eragon except with zombie dragons…” and boy, does it get worse.) And this is actually great. The things you write down in that notebook are you. When you are passively observing the world, and writing down the thoughts it triggers there is a different sort of filter active. This filter is your interpretation of the world. You choose to ignore certain events, and pay more attention to others. Some strangers are more interesting to you than others. This is the constructive filter that gives each person a unique voice. Unlike the other filter which blacks everything out, this casts a nice you colored light on everything.
Your thoughtbook should be your source of ideas of when you are writing. This works surprisingly well for something seemingly scatterbrained. The first year I did National Novel Writing Month I was at loss for ideas. Part of it was I was trying to impress a girl with my participation, so I thought it had to be perfect, and of course, not embarrassing. But my lack of ideas was more embarrassing than anything, as the days passed and I hadn’t written anything. So I sort of flipped through my philosophy notebook and dug out some ideas. (This isn’t to say I didn’t pay attention to the ideas in philosophy. I find philosophy enthralling, which is part of the reason it inspires so many ideas.) I knew that I wanted to take the structure and reasoning of a typical ‘revenge’ story and flip it over until it got dizzy. But I didn’t really know how, or what details to include. From my notebook I found these tidbits:
- A kitchen boy, trying to improve his life status
- Murder covered up by framing a dragon
- Crooked legal system
- Rigid class segregation
- Heartbroken/jealous girl’s father takes revenge
- Tournaments as a means of elevation
- Accidental murder
This actually led to a nice story, to which my writing didn’t do justice. In fact, I’m still trying to do justice to it, although the story has now become part of a far larger narrative. You can do all manners of wonderful things with a thoughtbook, I think, and it’s the ideal way to break writer’s block. Can’t think of anything to write? Go look for something new.