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On the Subject of Retaining Ideas

So this post by Warren Ellis (who is a comics et al writer I enjoy very much, both for his stories and his howling pursuit of the future) about a writer’s equipment started me thinking about my own kit, and what tools I could try. This is a rambling post about minutiae, and will bore many of you. I proceed undeterred.

My grade eleven English teacher, Kristopher Koechling, who remains the best teacher I ever had on any subject in my layabout academic career (discounting the Clarion Writer’s Workshop 2009, during which I had 24 teachers of various stripe and twitchy skill, discounted because it’s not fair to compare any classroom teacher to people with whom one lives and works and reads), taught my first ever creative writing class in my final year of high school, and assigned everyone in the class to buy a little notebook to keep on their person and write something, anything at all, in their notebook every day. The notebook I keep in my back pocketI filled two small tear-out notebooks over that semester and continued after I left his class, writing in baby composition books with stitched binding. I admit, I stopped writing in them for about a year in college, but I carried a notebook in my back pocket even then. And I just started my fourteenth one.

I was going to copy a day’s entries here, as an example; then I read through the last week or so, and decided not to. But I don’t think the content—my recorded inanity or silliness or obscenity—invalidates the wisdom of a handy recording device. This sort of notebook is useful to me, as an idea-generator, to preserve ideas and patterns of ideas and recurring thoughts, to store output, not to decant brilliance (unless you’ve got it, in which case, knock yourself out). Even when I have writer’s block, I can usually still write in one of these because much of what I write down is what I see, or how what I see seems, or a similarity between what I see and what I’ve seen, or a comparison of what I see and something I heard about once, or an extrapolation, like, “What if what I see were this way but more so?” or “What if what I see were not this way but another?” (All that is one possible answer to the question, “Where do you get your ideas?”)

That was a longwinded way to say: I have a pocket notebook made of paper and I like it very much. As for a full kit, I don’t think my dream kit exists, exactly, or if it does, I certainly can’t afford it.

To write well, I need a device for:

  • Reading – Preferably an open reader with a legible display the size of a paperback book that also displays landscape, and that can deal well with double-page pdfs (my own scans), text files (Project Gutenberg), OpenOffice docs (proofreading my own work, critiquing fellow writers), the ebook format du jour (ePub or otherwise), and image archives (comics). Or, instead of a reader, I could stay with hardcopy books. And maybe an rss feed. But regardless of medium, I need to be able to read what’s been done in the past, and what’s happening now.
  • Writing stories – What’s not useful: I’ve written a novel longhand, and now it’s sitting in an unsharable lump on my desk (also it’s a terribly written book, which is a different problem). Longhand is good for getting the story out of my head, but it usually arrives unformed and knobbly, and needs a great deal of revision, plus the time to transfer from paper to a malleable digital form. I tried a typewriter and ended up with the same problem as when I wrote longhand: errors take up physical space, and when I’m done typing I have one copy that doesn’t incorporate edits easily. So I need a way to store my manuscripts that is friendly to revision and sharing, which right now means OpenOffice on my laptop.
  • Notes – I would be wisest to link my notes with a database, but I’m too lazy to input them all, and I rather like the haptic reality of ink on paper, so an electronic device is out. Rather, the decision is postponed. If the Android or something similarly small and versatile came with a comfortably sized keyboard that felt good to type on, I’d switch in a minute, maybe even use it for writing entirely and ditch the laptop. But until then, paper for notes and recopy the salient bits (poetry, story ideas, character sketches, &c) to my laptop. Mead just put out a series of notebooks with excellent paper that neither feathers nor bleeds. I bought a pocket-size a few weeks ago and have been filling it with embarrassing and inept poetry. (And hm, I need to remember to grab a 6″x9″ notebook the next time I’m out. Because what I need are more empty and quarter-filled notebooks of fine paper. Yes.)
  • Talking to people – I have a phone that does nothing but field calls and texts. It is a hunk of stone. A smart phone would be nice, one that would collate my notes to a database and give me chat and GPS, but do I absolutely need this to work? No. Not in the slightest. Warren Ellis does, but he collaborates more often than I do. I prefer face-to-face conversations anyhow, and glean from them an overflowing measure of creative juice. Talking is helpful, if not necessary. Maybe Skype is the answer? Periodical virtual dinner parties full of creative spitballing and noodling? Or, why not, let’s form that grouphouse I’ve been muttering about for years and all live like ferrets in a sock (i.e. in each others’ business).

I can achieve these purposes using separate devices, but I would prefer one. A fold-out, cardstock-thin, hyper-resilient, e-ink tablet with a flexinib stylus (in the shape of my Lamy 2000) that supports handwriting recognition, that also hooks into my mail, that I can keep in my back pocket in a little matte black case that double functions as a phone would work best, please. Science, I’m talking to you.

All this tech aside, the fact of the matter is: as neat and fresh as technology gets, the best, most original part of fiction or any other creative act is the part you contribute, that comes out of your brain, not the tool, and whatever means you use to get it out is your business. As Warren Ellis says, “Obviously [these devices] all serve different purposes, but they are all in fact bent to the same purpose, the essential purpose of writing: getting the idea down before you forget it. Doesn’t matter if the idea’s crap. Doesn’t matter if it’s not immediately useful. Doesn’t matter if it’s half-formed. Get it down.” But don’t waste work; be smart about it.


  1. Nicole wrote:

    This is one of those things that I never think about that I totally should think about. I never seem to have paper on me when I really need it which is why in the last week I have written cryptic notes to myself on: an empty deodorant box, the classifieds section and my own thumb. I have an end table at home that still has notes scrawled on it because I thought of a name in the middle of the night and was afraid I’d lose it if I got up to find some paper like a normal human being.

    I love process geekery like this because it’s so neat to see what seems to be universal and what is highly individual and it encourages me to create an inventory of the sorry, scattered tools of my own trade.

    Wednesday, February 3, 2010 at 8:07 pm | Permalink
  2. Megan wrote:

    I love peeking into other people’s writing habits. Your notebooks sound like treasures.

    I have a notebook for ideas. I rarely look at it, except to add a line or scribble or whatever, but the act of setting the bits down seems to solidify them and carve out a draw for them in my head.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 3:16 am | Permalink
  3. Paul wrote:

    N: these mini composition books are maybe 97 cents a piece, and of a handy size. handier, perhaps, than your bedside table. do you type stories into the computer direct, or is there an intermediate stage?

    M: yes, precisely; the act of writing an idea down transmutes it from an impression (vivid or fuzzy) to a communicable thought.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 10:14 am | Permalink
  4. Nicole wrote:

    Paul, hmm…it’s not really the cost of notebooks or even the space factor that’s prohibitive. I just never seem to have a place for them on my person. I don’t always carry a purse or a backpack and I don’t always wear a coat (and when I do it’s not the same coat). You mention your back pocket, but girl pants often don’t have those and skirts never do. And given my general scatter-brain-ness-osity, whenever I do have a notebook, it’s guaranteed to be far away from me in the wrong article of clothing.

    I write most things directly on the computer, but, weirdly enough, I work best when there are multiple distractions so I’m always getting ideas in class. My school notebooks generally have an average story pages-to-scholary notes pages ratio of five to one.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

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