My writing practice has taken a huge leap forward this past year. I’ve had more ideas, discovered more creative connections, and encountered fewer creative blocks. I’ve completed a major writing project and made significant progress on another, plus made notes for a dozen potential tie-ins. All these improvement have occurred despite the ups and downs of sickness, travel, and other minor crises. And let’s not forget the normal life busy-ness that most creative types face, such as chauffeuring kids, paying bills, and trying to keep a house that’s reasonably safe, happy, and healthy.
This improved writing practice is due to one change. Astonishingly, that change doesn’t involve more time writing, less stress, OR chocolate. (Weird, right?)
I started keeping an idea log.
What’s an Idea Log?
An idea log isn’t exactly a journal, where you might figure out thoughts, explore feelings, or record daily events. It isn’t like morning pages, either, where you freewrite whatever your inner self has to say before starting the day.
Instead, an idea log is a tool for cataloging ideas. It’s a catch-all for thoughts you might want to pursue, intriguing snatches of conversation, and compelling questions. If you’re a designer, your idea log might include sketches or color swatches. For writers, the idea log provides a place to collect quotes, cool facts, news snippets, and concepts for blog posts, stories, and poetry.
If this sounds like the standard writing/creativity notebook, think again. The power of an idea log lies in its consistency. Every day–usually around 10:30 pm, because I tend to procrastinate–I drag out my notebook and dutifully jot down my ideas. Usually, that means turning my brain to whatever I’ve been working on that day, and usually, I start the process convinced that I have nothing to say. I’m tired, my inner lazybones whines. I’m not inspired. I don’t have…
And then: Oh, wait–what if I were to…. and before I know it, I usually have a bullet list of ideas that didn’t exist when I began. My “official” goal is to write down 5 ideas–and they can be about anything, ideas for nonfiction articles, blog posts, character quirks; or, if I’m feeling ambitious, they might be 5 ideas for how to get character A to plot point B, or maybe 5 ideas about how magic works in my current work-in-progress, or ideas related to any of a hundred other story questions.
Something about doing this every day for the past six months or so has yielded a steady stream of ideas and inspirations. Some ideas fade when I review them the next morning, but others have helped me to puzzle out plot problems, or given me the starting gems for winning characters.
How to Keep an Idea Log
The best thing about keeping an idea log? It takes almost no time, so even on the busiest of days, it will fit into your schedule. Why not give idea logging a try for a week and see if it boosts YOUR creativity. Here are a few tips for creating a successful idea logging practice.
- Commit to regular idea generation. This may be the single most important aspect of idea logging. When you make your brain scrounge for new ideas on a daily basis–even if it’s only for a few minutes each time–you set an expectation for yourself. You WILL come up with 5 or 10 (or whatever number you choose) ideas. Your subconscious will try to meet that expectation.
- Commit to a number. By planning a certain number of ideas to come up with ahead of time, you push yourself to push past the obvious, easy ideas. Sometimes you need to write out a few stupid ideas in order to get to a GREAT one.
- Permit imperfection. Attitude is everything here: remember that the idea log is for your eyes only, and it can be as messy, goofy, silly, and crazy as you like. This log is a place to help you think, NOT a place to seek perfection. Embrace imperfection and watch how the most unlikely, most surprising ideas end up taking you in new directions!
- Keep it convenient. Find a “capture method” that suits your lifestyle. I happen to think more easily with pen and paper; others would rather type up ideas on the computer or record voice memos on the go. Many of the new smart phones come equipped with pretty darned good voice recognition software, which makes capturing ideas a snap even when you’re on the go.
- Keep it simple. Just as the capture method should seamlessly fit into your day-to-day, your logging process needs to stay simple. I’ve tried keeping several different logs–one for craft ideas, another for blog posts, another for interesting plot and character ideas. Although I’ve heard this works for some people, I found that I never had the right notebook in the right place at the right time. The result? Instead of creating 4 neatly organized lists of ideas, I created nothing.If you want to add some structure to your idea log, start off with something simple. You might color code ideas with highlighter or Post-It flags; or record ideas for different projects in different sections of a single notebook. If you find that the organization interferes with the free flow of ideas, though, consider taking a step back and making one list. You can always sort out the best ideas later!
- Prepare for success. This is the second Most Important Tip on the list. (It’s my list, so I get two if I want!) What can you do to make your idea logging have a greater chance of success? Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Set an alarm so you don’t forget.
- Tie your idea-logging time to another daily event, to help you establish the idea-logging habit. (The link leads to an overview of B.J. Fogg’s habit-forming research at Stanford University. His 5-day Tiny Habits program is THE BEST tool for creating new habits that I’ve ever found. And it’s free.)
- I find it helpful to keep a sticky note listing current plot questions and topics I want to brainstorm in my idea log notebook. If I don’t have ideas when I start, looking at the list will get my creative wheels turning.
- Consider listing some thought-provoking questions and strategies inside your idea log. Gayle Curtis lists a number of creative jump-starters in her handout, What Is an Idea Log?
- Have fun! The idea log is a place to explore, to play with ideas. A sense of play can decrease pressure and spark creativity…not to mention that you’ll have better luck maintaining your idea log if you see it as something fun, rather than an dreaded chore.
There’s no one-size-fits-all process for keeping an idea log, any more than there’s a one-size-fits-all process for any creative endeavor. You may need to test places, times, and methods in order to hit a combination that lets you establish a regular practice of idea logging.
Are you going to try an idea-logging practice? Or do you already keep an idea log? Please share in the comments!
About the Symbols for Writers Series: I’ve found that symbols and imagery can trigger valuable insights into writing, life, problem-solving, finding joy, and more. This series was born because I wanted a collection of symbolic images coupled with text and questions intended to kick-start the creative process, help identify a creative block, or aid expression of complex concepts in condensed packages–and I thought you might enjoy such a collection, too! If you’d like to know more about how this came to be, check out the first post in the series.
How to Use
Following the image is a brief visualization exercise to help you identify what the image means to your subconscious—but there are no rules. If you prefer, skip to the suggested meanings that follow and see if any resonate. You can also use the image as a creative prompt, or as a reminder of some key idea you want to remember in the coming week.
What thoughts and emotions does this image bring to mind?
Take a good look at the image above, then close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Let your mind relax and wander a moment, then picture the infant above. What emotion does the image trigger?
What part of your life does it bring to mind?
What part of your writing does it bring to mind?
If you’re stuck, take 5 minutes and free associate starting with the image and the words beside it, or use one of the following questions as a writing prompt:
- What part of yourself feels new?
- What part of your creative self requires care and nurturing?
- Imagine the pure, unburdened joy seen in a baby’s smile: what does that feel like? What could bring such a smile to your soul?
- If the baby you envision is crying–do you have some need that isn’t being met? Some person or situation that leaves you feeling helpless? A crying baby can symbolize something that is lacking in your life. What might that be?
Take some time to write about your experience and the insights, ideas, or questions it generates.
Did this image resonate with you? Why or why not? Please share in the comments!
I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
― Flannery O’Connor
Writing as Burnout’s Antidote
Earlier this year, I wrote about the creative benefits of taking breaks. I stand by it: sometimes, the best thing you can do for your writing is to take a BREAK from writing. Here’s the funny thing, though. Too much writing can cause burnout, but
There’s something magical and powerful about words on the page. They tame racing thoughts into order; they reveal misconceptions, assumptions, and contradictions–you know, the ones masquerading as logic in our heads.
The Science of Expressive Writing
In case you doubt the power of writing, check out some of the amazing research:
- Several studies showed that “expressive writing” can help improve patients’ thoughts about cancer.
- Creative writing provided patients with advanced cancer with “a way to discover what they thought, felt, remembered…”
- In another study, expressive writing provided a valuable tool for helping Asian American breast cancer survivors cope with the aftermath of cancer. It improved both physical and psychological symptoms in participating women.
Writing Gives Form to Difficult Concepts
The power of writing may be most evident when it’s used to articulate ideas that are difficult–or even seem impossible–to express. In an article about the healing power of poetry, poetry therapist Robert Carroll writes, “Some catastrophes are so large, they seem to overwhelm ordinary language.” He points out the flood of poetry written in the aftermath of 9/11. With its language of rhythm, metaphor, and symbols, poetry gives us a way to express the inexpressible.
Expressive writing is gaining acceptance in the medical community as a way to help people cope with disease, combat addictions, deal with survivorship issues, and more–but it’s not just for helping those with problems.
Writing isn’t simply a treatment; it’s a tool that carves meaning from chaos.
Metaphor breathes life into ideas. It expresses emotion, reveals the
deep-seated need for which ordinary words won’t suffice.
I challenge you today to harness the power of the written word in some small way. You might use expressive writing–journaling your thoughts, feelings, and insights–about some obstacle you face on your writing path. Alternatively, take a more intuitive approach and use one of the “cards” in the Symbols for Writers series to inspire a freewrite.
I plan to freewrite about a recurring issue in my writing life–namely, the tendency to put “my” writing projects last. What about you? I’d love to hear your thoughts or experiences with expressive writing. Please share in the comments!
Photo courtesy of mrsdkrebs on Flickr Creative Commons
This post was originally published almost 2 years ago, but it fits perfectly with our current series on how symbols inspire your writing practice. Enjoy!
Laura K. Deal is both a wonderful writer and a graduate of the Marin Institute for Projective Dream Work, and she combines these two sides of her life when she teaches classes such as Writing and Dream Symbols, which I attended a few weeks ago. In the class, we performed a series of writing exercises beginning with images and dream symbols.
The experience was unexpectedly powerful. By beginning with a piece of artwork and a handful of symbols from others’ dreams, I was drawn into a waking dream. My mind pulled together these seemingly unrelated pieces to create a new image: a hilltop garden with five paths radiating outward, a silent woman standing at the garden’s center, a storm brewing in the background.
Strange as it sounds, this image led me to a new understanding of the magic system in the series I’m working on currently: relationships between races, key characters, magical rules—all of these stemmed from a twenty-minute free write that had nothing to do with my story problem. Or at least, I didn’t think it had anything to do with my story problem, which was perhaps the point. I’m supposed to be trusting my intuition. When I did, intuition led me where I needed to go.
But enough about me—Laura can do a far better job of explaining dream work and its power to inspire. Enjoy!
Could you explain dream work to the uninitiated?
The kind of dream work, or dream reading, that I do is consciously projective. I help people explore the meanings of their dreams and the symbols within them while staying aware that everything I see as a possible meaning for the dreamer is a possible meaning for me, as I imagine the dream for myself. What I say might or might not resonate with the original dreamer. Only the dreamer of the dream can say with certainty what her or his dream means.
However, we tend to be blind to some layers of meaning in our own dreams because dreams come to help us become more conscious about our own lives and motivations, and I might not see the deeper meanings of my dream precisely because that information is still unconscious for me. So when someone offers projections on possible meanings that I might not have seen, sometimes I will get an “aha” moment that indicates we’ve touched on some truth. The magic of working this way is that I can do much of my own inner work on the imagined version of other people’s dreams, so we all benefit and become more self-aware.
Why would one try to interpret a dream?
In addition to uncovering hidden motivations and unconscious patterns, I’ve seen dreamers perceive situations in their lives in a whole new way, which is the first step toward bringing creativity to bear to solve what might have seemed an unsolvable problem.
Dream work has uncovered physical health problems for many people. I had a short dream a few years ago that had a profound impact on my understanding of my relationships with beloved relatives who were reaching the ends of their lives. That dream is still yielding new information for me. I know dreamers whose life paths have changed dramatically for the better because they followed advice they found in their dreams. Also, nightmares usually lose their terrifying quality when the symbols are explored, so it can be of great comfort to the dreamer to understand the symbolic meanings of a dream that on the surface appears horrifying.
You offer a workshop that weaves together writing and dream work. Could you tell us a little about how that works?
I’ve studied both fiction writing and dream interpretation for many years. I realized that they have important elements in common: they both emerge from the same creative space in our minds, and both rely on metaphorical imagery and metaphorical thinking. It seemed a natural progression to bring them together.
I use the same kind of writing prompts that I use in my regular writing classes to tap into the creative well within, but instead of words and phrases pulled out of magazines or books, I have participants use several dream symbols to write a dream. It reinforces the similarities between the waking dream (the work of fiction) and the sleeping dream, and it takes off any self-editing pressure the writer may have since a dream doesn’t need to have a coherent narrative.
Sound interesting? If you’d like to try using dream symbols to inspire your own writing, Laura has shared one of the exercises from her workshop to get you started:
Jot down six dream symbols you remember from your own dreams or dreams of friends, or pick six symbols from a dream dictionary, then take 10-15 minutes to weave the symbols together into a dream. The more we play with dreams and metaphors and associations as writers, the richer our fictional characters and worlds become.
You can also learn more about dreams, dream symbols, imagery, and metaphor at Laura’s First Church of Metaphor blog—a great site for creative inspiration.
If you try this prompt, why not share your experience or part of your “dream” in the comments? This is an exercise best done in community, so please share!
As an (almost) off-the-chart introvert, I could be perfectly happy spending my days tapping away at the computer in a cabin in the woods, far away from civilization, without ever venturing into the real world. And despite the appeal that this scenario may have for the other introverts out there–you know who you are!–doing so would be a huge mistake.
Why? Because travel, and stepping outside your comfort zone, is one of the world’s best creativity boosters. All you have to do is keep your eyes, ears, and notebooks open.
Rather than list all the fine ways that travel, a change of scenery, and the unexpected can stimulate ideas–insight!–and lightning bolts of inspiration, I’d like to share some photos from my most recent creativity-boosting excursion: a visit to the little-known Bishop Castle.
More of a living sculpture than an actual building, this remarkable place is the creation of metalworker Jim Bishop. He’s been working on it for 40-plus years and is still hard at it, with plans for a dungeon, a wall encircling the property, and a rotating chamber seated atop one of the stone towers, covered with a geodesic dome of iron and tempered glass panes.
This building will certainly influence one of the major settings in my next novel. The man behind it–well, let’s just say he’s as inspirational as the building he’s creating. Talking with him was a delight! Reading his signs was almost as great. Scroll down to see what I mean :).