Friday, July 29, 2011

Is it possible for a writer to run out of imagination?

This morning I came across this quote from novelist Will Self (hat tip to Advice to Writers):

Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea forever.

At first glance, that looks like pretty good advice. But after a moment's reflection, I'm not so sure. While I've been known to carry notebooks, and have sometimes found myself scrambling for paper and pen because I was not carrying a notebook, I believe Mr. Self should rethink emphasizing that always.

Imagination is not a river that runs dry. It may flow swiftly at some times and sluggishly at others, but it's always there to draw from as long as a writer can calm her nerves and discipline herself to stop whining about being "blocked" and just sit down and write something, anything, even if it's garbage. Because even when our writing is garbage, that garbage comes straight from our imaginations. And we'll have plenty of opportunities to clean it up as we continue to hammer out our stories.

I agree that it's a good idea for a writer to carry a notebook. After all, she might be standing in the checkout line at a grocery store when she's struck by a fantastic idea for Chapter Three. And if she's unable to write it down, she might forget it before she gets home. But I disagree with Mr. Self's assertion that a writer must always carry a notebook and his implication that it's such a terrible, terrible thing to lose an idea.

I'll admit to being annoyed when I've lost ideas. Just yesterday morning, I lost one because I was in the shower and didn't have a Moleskine notebook handy and I didn't want to jump out and run for one without first rinsing the shampoo out of my hair. But it was no big deal, really. As someone who exercises her imagination on a daily basis, I know good ideas are a dime a dozen. So what if I lose one now and then? Another one will be along in a minute or two, and it might even be better than the one I lost in the shower.

I'm not saying writers shouldn't carry notebooks. I'm just saying we shouldn't obsess over having pen and paper handy at every moment of the day. Because nothing hampers creativity more effectively than the fear of losing it.


Karla said...

Wow. I've stumbled upon that advice before and I haven't tried it. Although I can remember every idea that hits me. Thanks for this, Ms. Brenda!

Brenda Coulter said...

You're very welcome, Karla. Hope it helps.

Anonymous said...

Don't the very best ideas come at the edge of sleep?
Sometimes I scribble in the dark, but usually I repeat the idea over and over, like a mantra, as I slip into dreamland.

Sandra Conner said...

Well, said, Brenda. And I agree that writers are never really devoid of imagination. As I was reading that part of your post, I remembered a night when I felt just too blah to work on either of the novels I was "supposed" to be working on. I refused to accept the idea that my imagination was blocked, so I decided it was a good time to go back to that old writer's exercise of beginning with the first word or phrase that pops into your mind, write it on the page, and just keep writing for as long as you can, no matter what comes out.

The oddest 2-word phrase popped into my mind. I wrote it down and kept going without any plan whatsoever in mind. What I wrote turned out to be the first two chapters of one of the most delightful stories I've written! (Actually, not quite finished yet -- but still delightful - I think).

And when I was teaching creative writing, I used to do that with my students in the class. Even though I know it unleashes that creative imagination, I was still often amazed at what came from those young people during those exercises.

By the way, it's the first time I've seen your blog. I'll come back. Thanks for the opportunity to "chat" with you. Blessings on you and your work! (Also, I hope you don't get this message twice. I had trouble getting the site to take it and had to click on "publish" twice.)
Sandra Conner

alphawoman said...

I have a bag of little scraps of paper! I was forced to be "empty handed" at my last job so I could not carry a small notebook or my beloved Moleskine. My last ob was full of interesting people and encounters.

sammit said...

i was also in the dilemma as i thought my creativity and thought have run out , but later i realized its not possible :)
this is my blog !!

Janet Sketchley said...

A few times when I felt stumped and in need of a good idea for a work in progress, I'd deliberately put myself somewhere without anything to write on, and then let my thoughts wander casually into the story. With the pressure to produce removed, my imagination would find something fun to solve whatever the problem was. The trick was to let it develop enough, then run for the paper and pen.

Sandra, intriguing writing exercise. I hadn't heard of that one before.