As predicted, I’m excited, and so I’m writing a little sooner than four perfectly paced weeks after the first one. I’m still working my way through another almost-complete first draft as part of Clarion West’s Write-a-thon while also picking up a revision in earnest, now that I have the space in my brain to do more complicated work again. (I recently found myself, post-its in hand, working on a short story revision at 2:30 in the morning, because I could.)
This means I spend a lot of time existing within things of my own imagining, which in turn means I’ve been thinking a lot about the systems of organization that have come together as I do that work, in years before That Last One We Needn’t Go Into and since. In college and many years after, I kept what I called sketchbooks. They were about one-third images (I have been known to draw too) and two-thirds text, and I used them for recording and exploring. Sometimes ideas from these books became actual longer-form writing; very often, they didn’t.
When I moved in 2015, I threw out a big box of them, something I consider pretty unlike me. (For contrast, I have a box of journals that go back to when I was 12, and I consider them the most valuable thing I own.) I sometimes think about what it meant to do that: years of dreaming and thinking just chucked in the recycling bin when I was in the middle of one of the most fraught periods of my life, going from Seattle to Oakland after 11 years of happily living in the mist.
But… I hadn’t so much as flipped through them for years and years. Any older stories I’ve written that I care to revisit are already typed out in one form or another, and one of the things I’ve learned in the last year-plus is that, for me, something that isn’t written out isn’t fully real in my imagination. I spent a lot of time marinating in my ideas, but it wasn’t until last year that I really learned how to push forward with them, rather than existing in a mood and typing out some things related to it, polishing unfinished excerpts for months and months, but going no further.
I value the work I did as a younger storyteller, but years of being an adult and going to therapy have changed the kinds of stories I want to tell. I think of those lost sketchbooks a little wistfully sometimes, but it’s less a need to revisit them and more that they were some important evidence of work I once did, the way book ownership once felt to me: this is required and tangible evidence and awareness of the things I have absorbed/created.
And that of course isn’t true. I’ve moved more than half my reading to e-books during the pandemic, and it doesn’t make me less of a reader. Not having a bunch of furtively filled notebooks from my formative years doesn’t mean I didn’t do the work.
During this evolution, I found myself in need of new ways to develop ideas. Across the last year, I’ve found a few.
If I’m on a computer (as I usually am in this era) and have an idea, I open one of my stubs docs. I have a couple of these. One, for the big project I’ve worked on for the last year, is called “these are loose ideas,” because I feel reassured by acting casual about something I’m not at all casual about. Each one gets a header, which I’ve named in the style of Friends (see: faux casualness). A couple fun ones are “The one where Leslie tells Daniel he’s got to start living again or she’ll fucking kill him” and “The one where someone gets hit by an arrow.” After a while, I started adding the date I came up with them, because it’s interesting to see how fast my mind moves sometimes. If they get referred to in another story, thus becoming backstory instead of their own separate tales, I note that too. If a stub gets past three or four pages and a real scene or two gets added, it gets an asterisk. Once they surpass fifteen pages or so, they get their own separate file.
I have a more general fiction stubs file for the ideas not related to this one big chunk of a universe, which is just called “stubs.” I’m less cute about the naming there, since they aren’t all in the same world and I want to be more descriptive. Sometimes it’s an image, sometimes a scene, and twice recently whole-ass plots, one of which feels like it might be book-length.
Once I initially write it down, I’m able to keep coming back and adding stuff to it. I also sometimes scroll through these when I want to find something fun to put my attention to, and things get expanded that way.
I put a small notebook in my nightstand with a pen. If something comes into my head, I can turn the light on for a minute and scribble it down, preserving it without bringing my phone into the situation. This small attempt at sleep hygiene during a time of collapsed contexts.
Which, you know, happens, and will happen even more in the coming months. When I was a poll worker for Alameda County last November, the first time I’d been out of my apartment for more than an hour in months and months, I found my storybrain still whirred. I wrote down notes on the small notepads that were meant to keep tallies or write down questions about ballots or voting records, and I came home with pockets stuffed with these little missives to myself. I’m going to have to have a similar system once I leave the house regularly again. Considering how I work, scribbling something in the blank pages in the back of my planner or typing into the Notes app on my phone feel likely.
After starting to write so much more in the last year and change, I’ve had to get better about where I put things. The big project has its own folder, with a subfolder called “various research” and all the stories, stub, notes files, and (more recently) formatted-to-print files. It makes me very happy to look at it.
The goal of all these things is to create a buffet of ideas and to remind myself that I have lots of them to run with. To quote Charlie Jane Anders: don’t be afraid to go on lots of first dates with story ideas. This idea has been wildly transformative for me. I mean, how are you supposed to know what has book-length momentum if you don’t bang out five or ten or twenty thousand words?
Thanks for going on this dorky little wander with me. Kind of like how I found other artists’ pens fascinating when I was working toward being a cartoonist, I’m now hopelessly enraptured by how other writers channel their imaginations into files, folders, and hierarchies of information. I grew up writing in Word; now I write in Google Drive. I’m a security engineer, so I have some issues with that, but dealing with it has (for now) been easier to punt down the road. I’m sure I’ll have a professional hybrid blog post sometime about combining good security practice with having access to your precious files across multiple devices.
But not today. Today is for the free, familiar, sufficient, and established. It lets the imagination run freer.
The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers, the end of the Wayfarers series, and a bittersweet clench around my heart
And finally, a sentence I’ve written recently that I liked: “‘Look, I know I come across as impeccably well prepared for things in a formidably strange environment, but I don’t actually just keep weapons of mass destruction on hand.’“
I went into Brooklyn last night to meet friends. I made my way home without needing to consult a map, despite it involving a transfer (pictured). This is not a monumental achievement, but after more than a year of mostly figuring out bad things, making my way for something I was excited about and enjoyed felt really good.
Thanks for coming with me on this journey of one-sided correspondence! If you’ve been here all along, I’m glad you’re here. And if you just arrived, I’m very glad to see you. I hope this finds you on a good day, with only lovely, nourishing things ahead of you (or at least things that don’t suck too much; that works too).