The Incubator and Other Tools

I’ve read some recent advice warning writers against being too precious about stray ideas. It’s not bad advice. Too precious implies building castles around every bit and bob hastily written on a napkin at dinner or on a cough drop wrapper in the dead of night. Some go so far as to counsel tossing those scraps of paper and ink, because good ideas will never really leave your brain, and sometimes they’ll grow into great ideas.

Texts, emails, and online notepads have replaced many of my paper napkins and other scraps, or at least digitized and organized them. My computer has a folder titled Ideas, Mixed, where all these tidbits end up until they’re used. I find it enormously helpful. Sometimes my mind will have incubated ideas captured long ago, but I won’t have ready access to the result. Maybe I’m the only one.

My memory is not great. Among my family of origin, I am known to have a Swiss-cheese memory: some really strong memories and lots of holes. I recall the thinnest slices of my early childhood all the way through about tenth grade. These memories swim by swiftly, somewhat out of reach, leaving impressions of colors, smells, feelings, and sounds. And yet some selection of memories that are every ounce as banal as the rest sit right on the surface for me to examine as I please. Those are far fewer, though as bright.

I was a history student in college, and I had no mind for numbers, including dates. From reading it on the page to saying it aloud, I’d muddle the numbers, inevitably getting things out of order. Law school did not correct this flaw, only making me more frightened than ever to reveal it.

Even now, I often lose track of names I’ve known for a decade or more. I have trouble finding my words, and my husband keeps me honest about it. These are not new traits, nor do they seem progressive. I’m not sure that I haven’t always been this way.

I write in Scrivener, which is nothing short of a miracle. I can add copious notes that future me will require as context, metadata, and a thousand other things flowing slightly below the surface of a story. I can easily move between character files, location files, and scenes. I can organize it however makes sense. I must always write with an active timeline within the story, even if the reader will never know the date. In Scrivener, I typically label my scenes with their date and/or the day +/- the first day of the book. I adore having these tools.

Casting my snippets of overheard conversation and random odd word combinations or other ideas into a digital folder is another tool. I go visit them occasionally, and some get folded into my work-in-progress. Others rest, incubating, until I know what to do with them.

There are going to be tools that you use, for a season or forever. If they help do the work, keep them. If they hinder the work–by obfuscating your current task or whatever–then drop them.

Tools were made for writers, not writers for tools.

What say you?

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