I have a lot of ideas. Because, you know, of all the thinking. I have ideas for podcasts and writing retreats I’d like to organize and stores that should exist and various ways to make millions, not to mention all the ideas for essays, stories, novels and books. Most of the time, you can assume I’m over here drowning in a whirlpool of ideas. All of them are excellent as ideas go and if you Venmo me $20, I’ll tell you a few of them.
I’m forty-nine and well aware that at this point in my life, the window for these ideas becoming reality dwindles by the second. Tick, tick, tick…that book is never going to be written. Tick, tick, tick…probably not going to ever make those millions. That’s how it goes and I have no desire to live forever, so I’m okay with it.
As far as writing goes, I come up with some of my best ideas when I’m smack dab in the middle of an existing project. We all know that phenomenon. The new project is so much more exciting than the one you’ve been slogging away at for the past few weeks/months/years.1
When that happens, the question is—what do you do with that idea? It has to be recorded somewhere because the only thing worse than an idea that never becomes realized is an idea that gets <gasp> forgotten. The idea forever gone, never to be retrieved, is the stuff of writer nightmares.
I sometimes write small ideas down in notebooks, which then I often neglect to ever look at again, though the writing down itself is often a good way to remember. Some of those little ideas show up later in newsletters or essays or, every now and then, in a story or a book. Even if they don’t, there’s always the possibility that they could. Like a butterfly caught on a pin, they’ve been captured, at least. They’re there, should I ever need them.
What about the big ideas, though? The next novel or book. Sometimes those include an outline or even a first line. A vague sense of a character or a plot. Writing them down in my notebook doesn’t seem right. You have to imagine this notebook as the written equivalent of a very big purse. Yes, there are important things in there—a cell phone and keys and emergency tampons. But at the bottom, there’s also a lot of weirdness. Crumpled up gum wrappers. A random menu from an Indian restaurant in Columbus. Receipts and ticket stubs and business cards for services I can no longer remember why I thought might be important in the first place.
Don’t believe me? Here is a random assortment of things I’ve written in my notebook:
– Someone who’s underwear or something else keeps going missing
– I’m super bloated and hungry.
– I am very happy today and it’s because I’m not teaching (Sorry, students! I love you, but I also love time away from teaching!)
– Will tear that out (this in reference to something work-related I wrote in my notebook and all work-related things are forbidden)
– Is this a psychic break? I am not at all sure. I also worry about writing space in these notebooks, like a total weirdo.
You get the idea, yes? My notebook is a weird place. It’s easy for things to get lost.
The logical thing would be to start a folder on my computer of course. My computer is ever so slightly more organized than my notebook. There are folders.2 And folders within folders. The labels on these folders mostly make sense. The incidence of random observations about stolen underwear or my bodily state are much rarer.
Here’s the problem, though—a big new idea should necessarily need a new folder, right? Simple enough. Only a folder implies, you know, a thing. Multiple documents. Plans. Outlines. Ideas. Chapters. Creating a folder, friends, is a big step. It’s a commitment. Given how often I do a file purge (probably every fifteen years or so and even then, do I really get rid of anything, because what if I need it or decide that was THE THING?), that folder is going to be with me for a long time.
That folder might be haunting me for decades, whispering to me every time I see it, “Look at how you never got around to me! Look at how you never finish things!” That folder might as well be labeled, “FAILURE.” Every single one of them.
At least, that’s what I thought for a long time. Recently, I’ve decided it’s time for a different approach, which is, just go ahead and create the folder. Yes, maybe that book will never be written. Maybe it will stay nothing but a folder with one lonely document inside it. Maybe that novel will never become more than the very first line. Like, “It all began with the peach-colored irises that grew in the flower beds in the public parking lot down the block.” Or, “You be you, my friends always say.” Or, “Vander Brown sat on the couch in Mr. Munchak’s house and it did not smell like death.”3
Maybe it’s hubris, to create so many folders. Or maybe it’s like a baseball field in Iowa—if you build it, they will come. My book, She/He/They/Me, started as one of those folders. I created it and then let it sit for months or years until I came back and turned it into a proposal, which I sent to an agent who sold it to an editor and—BAM—folder into book.
So why not dream big? Make the folder. It doesn’t take up much space, anyway. At least not now. But maybe someday it will. Someday it’ll be filled. Every story, after all, starts with one word. One sentence. Every folder starts out empty.