In The Year of Magical Thinking–a book on which I will write a bit more anon–Joan Didion quotes her late husband, John Gregory Dunne, as saying that having a notebook handy–to write down a thought, an idea, filed away for future reference and deployment–was the difference between being able to write and not.
There is much truth in this utterance of Dunne’s.
A couple of years ago, when I started blogging here, I would find myself thinking about blogging topics as I walked to and from work (or my gym). On those occasions, I would wait till I got home to scribble my thoughts on a notepad on my desk. But sometimes, those thoughts were too fleeting to survive; I would, with some dismay, and often, mounting panic, rummage in my memory stores, seeking desperately to find that little flash of inspiration that had suggested itself as such a fertile avenue of written exploration. Bizarrely enough, it took a few months before I started to do something about this state of affairs.
Unsurprisingly enough, I relied on a technical aid: the ubiquitous smartphone. I began making tiny notes on a ‘scratchpad’ on my phone, quickly writing down, misspellings and all, the fragments of whatever thought had crossed my mind as I rode the subway and read a book. I hoped to return to these later. Sometimes I did, and found the seed was still a viable one, and I would turn it into a full post. Sometimes, on re-inspection, I found a mere incoherent ramble, a passing fancy that would not bear the weight of writing on it.
I did not just write down ideas for blog posts, of course. On some occasions, a tactic for resolving a sticky section of writing in a book project would suggest itself to me–‘get rid of the section on X‘ or ‘move the bit about Y to the end of the chapter’–and a way out of an impasse would become crystal clear. Again, here too, on actually sitting down and confronting the text, my assessment of the worth of the putative brainwave could change; my visit from the muse had not been as fruitful as I had previously imagined.
There are times, and I always pay for them, when I forget the wisdom of Dunne’s observation, and I am too lazy to pull out my phone to write down my supposed inspiration. I cannot be bothered to put down my book; my phone is in my backpack; the subway is too crowded. Whatever the reason, I reassure myself I will make notes when I arrive at my destination. But I almost never do. And thanks to a peculiar transience associated with such thoughts, they do not survive and persist. Irate at my lack of attention, they move on to more attentive and grateful minds. I call out again and again, but they are gone, leaving not even a wispy trace in their wake. There is no way to call them back again, except perhaps to get back to work.