I had an idea for an essay I wanted to write yesterday and became distracted by a conversation with a colleague. I forgot my thought in the process and now I can’t decide whether the thing I did remember is the thing I had originally forgotten or not.
There goes an essay! It could very well have been something of particular importance. And I nearly drove myself mad trying to remember the idea.
The lesson here is simple: I should have written it down the moment I thought of it. No “I’ll do it later” and no “I’ve made a mental note,” but I should have actually physically written it down in a notebook and outlined the idea with as much context as possible so that when I returned to it later I could re-enter the particular moment that inspired the thought.
I usually do this. I started doing this after years of coming up with ideas I thought were worth developing further only to forget them before I got around to working with them.
The unfortunate fact is that our memories are not that good. Most of us aren’t like Simonides of Ceos, who I once read in Cicero’s De Oratore was able to recall where every person sat at every table during party. We need to write it down fast before it fades with the day’s distractions. As William Zinsser wrote in How To Write A Memoir,
Writers are the custodians of memory, and that’s what you must become…
I carry my Moleskine almost everywhere I go now and often find myself writing the beginnings of essays on napkins, pages of books, or any other scrap of paper I can find whenever the idea comes. Sometimes that’s in coffee shops, in movie theaters, at red lights, or at the gym. No venue is off limits. Then I’ll go back through the notes during my daily writing later and turn it into an essay or blog post.
I forget a lot less (as far as I can remember) and get a good deal more writing done. If you’re doing any kind of creative work regularly, you should try it.
And by writing everything down immediately, you’ll develop a backlog of ideas to pull from when new ideas are slow to come by. Unlike most people who struggle to produce regularly, you’ll have a creative repository to ensure you’ve always got something to work on.
In my own case, I have an ongoing list of essay ideas and outlines written in my Moleskine, on my iPhone, papers and as drafts on this blog that I return to regularly when I need fuel for writing.