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.

Discipline: Continue in Uncertainty

One aspect of discipline most Americans know intimately this year: continue in uncertainty with the tools at hand.

November 2016 brought a crushing blow to many optimists (and also a crushing blow to everybody else, whether they knew it or not). Un/Fortunately, I’m a pessimist via depression and anxiety. The election did not surprise me. But, like much of the world, it saddened me and weighed heavily on me. It frightened me on behalf of lots of people I love. I wrote about a little ring I bought myself with the words “be here now” stamped into it. I had bought the thing to remind myself not to be brought down by ruminations or future fantasies. I used it last November to ground myself in the uncertainty of the moment.

Even though I knew the theme for 2017 last November, it had not yet gestated into anything I could write about last November. Or December. Or January. It was late in February before I introduced a theme I’d been thinking about, dreaming about, and working towards for months.

Beyond what was happening in the dizzying news cycle, I tried to act like everything was normal while waiting to hear whether we were moving. So, I wrote about parental connectedness as a discipline. Having begun reading about my theme from a few great resources, I introduced the resources as a sort of accountability: hey, I’m doing this thing, I promise. The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook got me started on a focal point (mindfulness). I talked about morning pages.

Then life got much too real for me to stick to safe, surface statements on the greatness of discipline. You see, discipline started to require something of me. Depression resurged when I found out we were moving. I basically went dark, consumed with the struggle to live and to keep going.

I didn’t blog at all during the move and settling. What could I say? I had distilled no lessons. Everything was survival all the time, until the slow crawl back toward light.

In August, I ventured forth to talk about raising boys while white because Charlottesville happened. Because I don’t know if I’m doing enough. But I’m doing something. And I know a lot of other people who also don’t know if they’re doing enough. Starting with raising decent kids who love humans – not the worst start.

Enter hurricane, evacuation, return, and the decision to move back to Oklahoma, which was only very loosely connected to the foregoing.

November 8, 2017, I sat down at this keyboard and wondered how a work-in-progress like myself could add anything to the cacophony that can be the internet. It turned out that I had distilled several lessons over the last year, and I was finally in a place I could communicate them. To myself if no one else. I went back to the beginning, the first thing I encountered on this discipline journey: a prayer to increase my capacity to wonder. Without that lesson, that prayer that I got so wrong, none of the others would have shaken out quite the same.

This is the next-to-last post on my discipline theme, but the lessons will reach much further. Why did I spill nearly 500 words recounting what my blog archives could have told you? Because it was my path through uncertainty.

I used morning pages (though I did switch to handwritten) and I formed a The Artist’s Way sacred circle with three other fantastic artists. I read loads of books and learned and pushed. I attended therapy and took my medications. I kept going. I wish I had a special equation to hand you or keep in my hip pocket enlightening the way to get through uncertainty (especially the uncertainty of depression). I don’t. It may only be in retrospect that we can see the tools that were at hand, the ones that carried us bit by bit through it.

When I look back up at that still-dizzying news cycle, whatever else I feel, which can be a lot, I am thankful. For free press. For brave men and women who do their jobs well – whether governance, investigation, or communication. For other brave people who tell the truth when it benefits them nothing. For those fighting a two-generation war over which they have no control. For makers. For sustainers. For students and teachers. For healers and providers and the people doing the work no one else wants to do or remembers to appreciate. For families, however defined, and for friendships that lift up others. For my people, who kept and keep faith with me through it all. All of these people are part of surviving uncertainty. Tools are for boxes, and we should use them whenever handy. People, though, they are for everything.

Take good care of both.