…and how you deal with that
It happens to me all the time: I have an idea, usually in the shower or doing something else that prevents me from noting down that idea immediately. I will have to remember it until I can reach my phone (with dry hands) or one of my notebooks scattered about the house (with dry hands). Often, in that relatively short time this happens, another idea has popped into my head, overruling the original one.
I jot it down, trying to remember that first idea — which was good enough for me to want to note it in the first place — but it is gone.
Trying to recall it leaves me with nothing but frustration (and, because I am going through The Change, with a particularly uncomfortable hot flash).
Does this happen to you? (Overruling ideas, I mean, not the hot flashes — I wouldn’t wish those on anyone).
“We all have our time machines, don’t we. Those that take us back are memories…And those that carry us forward, are dreams.”
― H.G. Wells
What to do?
Retracing your steps
Sometimes it helps me to recreate what it was I was doing when I got — and consequently lost — the idea. Of course, it would be going to far to have another shower when you’re already dressed and groomed. But to recreate the consecutive events in your head that lead you to the idea, might be helpful as well.
Emptying your mind
As I am writing this, I can’t help laughing out loud. Anyone who ever tried meditating in some form or another for the first time will remember how ridiculous that sounds and how difficult it feels. Emptying my mind. Yeah. Chance would be a fine thing. I don’t have any idea how people manage to do that, unless they walk around all day with nothing but white noise in their head (many people actually look as if they do).
Still, it is not all that ridiculous if you really think about it. On any given moment, there is just so much crap going on in your mind it becomes hard to distinguish the good stuff. An example (from my own head):
I don’t know about you, but I usually wake up with an ear worm. Every.Single.Day. Sometimes I enjoy it, but usually it’s just annoying because my mind keeps repeating just a few lines over and over again and wastes time trying to remember the rest. This should stop, of course. If you find it hard to concentrate because of an ear worm, pull it out. Look up the song that keeps repeating in your head, play it and sing along. With that gone, you may find you can focus on that idea again.
Getting it out of your system
Emotions lodged in your brain. Unwanted memories. Disturbing images fighting for attention in your head. These can all distract you from what you meant to be doing (and no, you’re not crazy. With up to to 500 trillion connections, it’s just how the brain works. You’re left with finding out how to make it work for you. Deal with everything you did not want to think about today. I know that sounds simpler than it is, but you know what? You’re a writer. You can write down everything that disturbs you to get It out of your head. Another way to deal with unwanted stuff on your mind is to simply accept that it is there and allow it a special storage space — a little drawer in a filing cabinet in your mind, if you will (if you are familiar with the concept of a Mind Palace, you will know what I mean).
What usually works for me is to ask myself why this memory, emotion or image is disturbing me so and try to reason it away. An example.
I will probably write about this more extensively at some point, but suffice to say my rather irregular visits to my ageing mother disturb me. A lot. I feel as if I am visiting a complete stranger and it pains me. I find my mind particularly burdened the very next day, maudlin thoughts drowning out the very ideas I mean to make a living off. To get my mother out of my head, I ask myself what it is that bothers me so much. Once I can put my finger on that, I can store the offending thoughts away for a while. There will never really be a right moment for these thoughts, but accepting that you have them can give you just a little more peace.
I don’t know about yours, but my mind associates a lot. A LOT. I have often pondered a novel based entirely on these associations. The thing is, my brain (fortunately) works so fast I can’t possibly write fast enough to keep up. I’ve tried recording, but I don’t like the sound of my own voice. But I stray from the subject. The point is, in my mind, everything’s connected (as it is in the world, I believe, but that’s another story).
Sometimes, recapturing an idea that got away from you is as easy as making the right connection. When one idea overrules the other, they are connected. Now all you need to do is to find out in what way. You can use visual aids to clarify the associations your mind made before, such as a mind mapping tool or a simple whiteboard. No matter how fleeting the idea, it will come back to you. Look at the idea you did manage to write down and try to recapture the connection: what made you write that one down? What preceded it? Bingo!
Going with the flow
It may sound contradictory, but sometimes the best way to recapture a lost idea is to simply forget about it. Let’s face it, when you are desperately trying to recover what you have lost and all you get for the effort is frustration, you might as well let it go. It’s a waste of time and energy better spent on something else. Now, some people have trouble letting go (of anything), but there are many techniques to help with that. As I am not psychologically trained I will refrain from elaborating here. Where I am concerned, sometimes I have trouble letting go of certain things, and other times it comes extremely easy to me. I often surprise my husband, who has had trouble with letting go for most of his life, and he asks me sometimes how I do it. I have yet to find the answer — I simply do not know. I know (not feel, but deeply KNOW) that it is a waste of energy holding on to some things and it costs me little effort to simply stop thinking about those. I am not always so successful, though…
Anyway, sometimes it is best to just go with the flow of the day. Chances are, the lost idea will come back to you. If it doesn’t, perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea in the first place or it will come back to you in another shape.
This time, I am going for the last option and wrote this article instead, confident that the brilliant idea I had this morning will find its way back to me — probably when I least expect it. For now, I’ll simply go about my business.
Writers are an imaginative lot. Fortunately, or we wouldn’t be able to do our work. Often, there is no end to the stream of ideas. Fortunately again, because in order to get better (and to get the recognition some of us crave) we have to write a LOT.
Maybe it is not such a bad thing, losing one idea. There will be many, many others.
This post was originally published on Medium in my publication Hearts in the Write Place on November 7, 2019.