by Nancy Adair
He lay spread-eagle on the hard mattress and stared at the fan blades, wobbling as if they could fly off at any minute. How would the Washington Post tell this story? He’d survived a brutal dictator … an AK-47, point blank … and a plane crash, only to be hacked to death in his sleep by a renegade ceiling fan.
Ideas like these don’t arrive when you’re ready: when you’ve washed the last dish, dusted the last table, and arced your fingers over the keyboard. Nope. They sneak up when you’re not looking. For me, I’m usually asleep. When our house goes bump in the night, it’s not a ghost. It’s a big idea floating into my head on the wings of darkness, and me scrambling around to capture its essence before it drifts away, unremembered.
TRIAL AND ERROR
Early in my writing life I’d awake from a dead sleep and scrunch my eyes shut to rehearse the big idea, to memorize it. Sometimes the fear of loss had me rehearsing until the morning alarm.
After too many sleepless nights, I started bringing my computer to bed. That lasted until my husband said, “Either it goes, or I do.”
Now my nightstand holds a writer’s notebook and a pen with a lighted ball point, the perfect Christmas gift from my writerly friend, Jes.
No writer should be without a notebook … or two. Mine is small and follows me everywhere. It’s not a journal, mind you. It’s a purse-sized notebook, just right for lists and one-liners from overheard conversation.
PHASE ONE: VERBS
It started with lists of verbs, back when I dreamed of being the next Hemingway. If writer’s block comes, I turn to my list and log on to a “random number generator” website (www.random.org). If my list has, say, 40 verbs, I type in a range of 1-40. And click. The generator picks the number of the verb I will use. Then I type in the number of pages in my novel and let the generator select the page where the verb will land. This is a great little game to jumpstart creativity, especially when the writing won’t otherwise come.
PHASE TWO: NAMES
During trips, I collected town names to use in future settings or characters. My WIP protagonist, Hamilton Lange, got his names during a drive through Canada.
PHASE THREE: FEELINGS
Sometimes at the keyboard, I find myself running out of visceral reactions to describe feelings. How many times can a character’s stomach burn or head throb or heart stop? Well, only once for the last one. I keep my notebook handy when I’m watching TV, listening to the radio, reading, or talking on the phone. I long for people to spill their guts so I can sweep their authentic visceral reactions into my log. “Um, I’m starting to feel your pain. Can you go a little deeper and restate that without clichés?”
PHASE FOUR: DICTATOR THRILLERS
To my surprise, my old notebooks foreshadow my current interest in evil dictators. They describe my shock at how quickly the U.S. switched allegiance from party boy, Ferdinand Marcos, to Corazon Aquino.
They reveal my outrage at Mobutu’s greed and negligence, particularly when it came to health care. When I lived in the Congo, I had doctors appointments and got medicine at the U.S. Embassy. The locals, however, rarely got either. So, as in classical tragedies, most everyone died in the end.
Just rereading this makes me mad all over again. Viscerally speaking, my blood pressure explodes.
The value of a writer’s notebook is immeasurable. Writers always need specific details of events, and it’s great to have authentic personal reactions to them. That’s what readers really want, anyway. Plus, keeping word lists can enliven your writing and facilitate mind games to conquer writer’s block.
Bottom line, a writer’s notebook is priceless. Invest in one today.
Nancy Adair is novelist, travel blogger, and memoirist, who left the U.S. in the eighties with her diplomat husband, two babies, and an electric typewriter. She now spends her days recounting a life of travel, human rights work, and diplomatic intrigue. Her travel blog appears weekly at nancy adair.com. Her first novel, BEYOND THE SCOPE, recently won Chanticleer Review’s Sommerset Award.
Gee, look at the time marker for my post–is that Australia time?
Loved the humor in your piece, Nancy. Maybe sometime you’ll write about trying to find, in your thick notebook, that one perfect bit you half-remember jotting down.
Yes, notebooks are vital to a writer, and everyone really as a place to record observations and thoughts. I’m currently using five or six of different sizes!
Excellent discussion, and elegant way to address writer’s block. My trusty idea journals follow me everywhere, but using a little notebook for stray words and phrases heard on the fly is rife with possibilities, as you have aptly written.
Love this post, Nancy! I know a lot of this, but don’t do it, and your post really inspires me to follow through! Wonderful!
Terrific post. I love all your concrete examples that perfectly illustrate your point. And I love the short extract from you novel you start with.
Great advice. I’m going to take it – buy a physcial notebook and transfer the best ideas to a computer file.
Judy–I’ve been there. It’s chaotic. The lighted pen is from the Western Washington University bookstore.
Marion–My soulmate! I’m not daft after all!
Nancy, I’m heading out to buy another notebook right now! Like you, I get my best writing ideas in the middle of the night. Hard to recreate in the morning without notes.
Nancy – I love this. As a writer who scribbles notes everywhere, including on my husband’s mail and in the margins of magazines, I need the lighted pen and the tiny notebook!!