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.

Annual Theme Life

Discipline: Morning Pages

For you who are playing along at home, no, I’m not addressing discipline in a very, ahem, disciplined manner. Which is to say, I’m all over the place. First, I talked about disciplined parenting. Next, mindfulness as a spiritual discipline. Now, morning pages.

When I began research for this year’s theme, one writing discipline cropped up over and over. Morning pages. The best way I can describe it is: flushing the line. Think intravenous port. Sometimes the nurse injects saline to clear out the blood or stuff in there. Or brakes. Same thing but with a mechanic and less blood, hopefully.

The authority on Morning Pages, Julia Cameron, insists that the three pages should be written longhand. I have not committed to the longhand proscription, mainly because it is difficult for me to hold small items like spoons and pens, so I tend to reserve that strength for making art.

So, I write in Scrivener and have done so since 2011. I have lots and lots of Scrivener files roaming the vast landscape of my computer. I added one this January for morning pages. I’d love to say I am more faithful than a Timex in this discipline. I’m not. Yet. Hence the whole work in progress thing.

When I use morning pages, it flushes the line…of my brain. Okay, the metaphor kinda breaks down, but I know you follow.

How I do morning pages: Open Scrivener file whenever I start my day as a writer [morning pages are like morning sickness in that they might happen at any moment]. Add new document dated today. Flush for 750 words. Close Scrivener file.

I don’t add these words to my daily word count, so I feared I would resent those 750 uncounted words. But it’s a fantabulous practice for me. I vent. I type stream-of-consciousness ramblings. [Not unlike blogging in my case.] Whatever bugs me, whoever weighs on my thoughts – I leave them on the page. That frees me. Truly.

Wholly unscientifically, I would estimate 91.77% of my morning pages since January consist of me emoting over the state of our nation. This has led to some interesting brainstorms for actions. And it keeps me a little more balanced. There’s only so much we can SAY to each other before we fall into a death spiral of angst or fear or worry. My morning pages don’t have feelings. And they don’t have expectations. They don’t have needs or fears of their own. They don’t bear their own burdens or have anything to unpack. I never say the wrong thing or hurt their feelings or step on their worries. I can simply vomit words about my own feelings, burdens, unpacking, expectations.

Morning pages differ from journaling (for me) because the latter has always felt forced. Like I was trying to convey something to someone. I censored. I rewrote my own history whenever I journaled. Why is this practice different? Purpose, I think. The immediate purpose of journaling was to emote. The immediate purpose of morning pages is to flush the line. To move on to other, more interesting things. You may not have that kind of bifurcated view. If journaling works for you, morning pages likely will. And if you are no diarist, morning pages may be a means to an end. They may help you flush your brain line.

Do you write morning pages? How does it impact your writing?


Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

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