Before I had children and they decided that I don’t really need to sleep at night consistently anymore, I used to go through phases where I would get up before dawn and go for a nice run in the dark.
Even in the brisk Wisconsin winter, that run was a great way to start my day. There’s no such thing as feeling sluggish when you step out into twelve degree air and start moving. Your eyes need to wake up because if you’re running where there are no streetlights, the fog of your breath in front of your face can actually keep you from seeing where you’re going!
In those early morning hours, though, I always did some of my best thinking. At 5:00am, there are rarely any cars out driving around, and nobody is out walking their dog or anything, so even if I have something playing in my headphones, I’m still struck by the peacefulness and serenity of my environment.
In the dark, cold early morning air of one run, my mind drifted away from whatever podcast or music I was listening to, and I became hyper-aware of how alone I was. I love the feeling, but then a thought occurred to me: What if somebody drove by and shot me dead right now? I’d fall to the pavement in a pool of my own blood, shiver a bit, and die. And nobody would see it happen. They’d get away with it, and that would be that.
I don’t know what that says about me, and I implore any psychologists reading this to just move along please, but that thought stuck with me. How would somebody solve that kind of murder?
It didn’t scare me into running, even though if my wife knew that this thought crossed my mind, she probably wouldn’t allow me to run in the early morning ever again.
(But if you’re reading this, hi honey, I love you, thanks for supporting my work.)
For the next few runs, I kept coming back to that thought. It didn’t intimidate me - it fascinated me. Then I had a different picture: what if I deserved it? And what if the shooter popped me in the back, so I’d never see it coming?
A picture formed in my head of the opening of a book: a man going out for an early morning run, being shot down in the middle of the street by an assailant he never saw, and as life drifted out of his body, a smile spreading across his face because he knows who shot him, and he knows he deserved it.
Whenever a new thought of this scene formed in my brain, I pulled out my phone, opened up Google Keep, and recorded it for later. Months after the fact, I used that scene in my first fiction novel.
The Usefulness of a Wandering Mind
I’m hardly the first author to come up with a story idea in the middle of my daily life. Stephen King famously came up with the entire concept of Carrie from the sight of a wastebasket in a girls’ locker room.
Ideas are everywhere… but not in your head.
I don’t mean that you aren’t creative or that your brain can’t come up with ideas on its own. It’s just that, when you force yourself into a situation where you have to be creative, it’s not uncommon for you to struggle with it.
It’s why I don’t write comedy. I love a good, funny blog. I can be witty at times (unless you ask my wife). But if I sit down to write something funny, it will come across as forced at best, and painfully unfunny at worst.
If you need to come up with ideas for your writing, whether that’s a blog or a novel or a sales page, having a notebook at the ready to record ideas is going to make your life a whole lot easier.
Three Reasons Why a Notebook Changes Your Writing Life
That’s a bold statement, but this is the internet, after all.
When ideas come across your mind, you have to get them somewhere. All of them. Every last idea. The good ones, the bad ones, the boring ones, the offensive ones.
With a notebook, you can get into the habit of collecting these ideas and keeping them somewhere relatively safe. By doing so, you give yourself three distinct advantages:
1. You have a resource to refer to.
This changes your approach from “I need to come up with an idea” to “I need to pick an idea from this list.” Don’t underestimate the power of this switch.
2. You take the pressure off your brain to remember stuff.
I understand that the human brain has insanely high limits. It’s the most powerful computer known to humankind. But accessing it isn’t always feasible.
You know how you try to remember the name of that stupid song from 1999 that everyone sang and you got your mom the album for Christmas and you played it all day Christmas Day… but you can’t recall the name of it? It’s in your brain, and it’ll come to you when you wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.
Don’t try to force yourself to recall ideas. Write them down and then your brain can worry about other stuff. (And that song was “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba, by the way. True story.)
3. You have an emotional outlet at your disposal.
An emotionally healthy writer is a productive writer. When something is bothering you, often the act of writing it down somewhere can help you work through it and move on to more important creative pursuits.
How to Carry a Notebook with You
Unless you’re carrying a backpack with you everywhere, or a diaper bag, walking around with a full-sized notebook at the ready is likely not an option for you.
That’s okay. There are better options anyway.
First, you could get a pocket notebook. I love the Field Notes brand because they’re cheap, durable, and perfectly-sized to fit in the back pocket of my pants. Grab a three-pack and buy a nice $10 leather cover for it. Stick a decent pen in there, too, and you can jot down notes whenever you’d like.
Or, you can use your phone. There are dozens of notetaking apps that can record your thoughts, and you’re already carrying your phone with you everywhere, aren’t you? Come on, this is 2020. Of course you are.
Why I Use My Phone for Notetaking
I’ve bounced back and forth between a paper pocket notebook and my phone, but ultimately, I keep settling on my phone (using Google Keep) for a few important reasons:
- It backs up my notes online. Safety first.
- I can access my notes on my computer later. I usually like to work from my laptop whenever possible, so pulling those notes up when I have a trackpad and keyboard in front of me is always a plus.
- I have terrible handwriting. It’s more pleasant to look at the cleanliness of Keep versus my chicken scratch.
- I can take notes in a variety of ways. I can jot down a text note, record a voice note, or snap a photo of something I want to remember. This is great for sights that spark ideas in me.
- I don’t have to remember to grab my phone. Again, it’s 2020. Of course I have my phone with me.
Regardless of the method you choose, have a system in place to record your thoughts and ideas whenever they come to you so you can recall them later.
Once you get into the habit, you’ll wonder how you ever survived without it.