Friday, September 14, 2012

How to have ideas (a remedial course)

This semester I'm doing something I haven't done in a long time: I'm keeping a notebook. Sure, I've always taken notes--I buy legal pads in bulk for my reading and research and endless to-do lists--but not since the days when I thought I was a creative writer have I carried around a notebook for jotting down disconnected observations and ideas.

I just never saw the point. For 10 years, I was working on one big project: my dissertation-turned-first-book. I published a few unrelated articles in that time, but each one was a well-defined project, often in response to a commission or CFP, and each one, like my book chapters, had both physical and digital files into which I could dump any ideas I had on the spur of the moment and refer back to at a later date. And as a matter of temperament, I dislike having too many things going on at once. I want to bore down into one project at a time, and I like to finish one thing (or one part of a thing) before starting another.

But as my first book began to approach its final form, I started to feel at loose ends. I didn't have much on the back-burner--stuff that I was eager to write conference papers on or work up into an article. Even after the parameters of my second book project started to take shape and I wrote the better part of the first chapter, I had the nagging feeling that that wasn't enough: Book Two might take me five years or it might take me ten, but however long it took, I'd need to be publishing more than just the one or two articles I could profitably extract from it.

I needed, in short, to be having ideas.

"But I'm not an idea person," I told some friends. "I'm basically not creative. I don't have a fertile mind. I mean, I'm insightful and whatever, and dogged as hell. Once an idea comes along, I can do more with it than most people. But they don't come around all that often. I can't make something out of nothing, ya know."

It was suggested to me that I was protesting too much, and that what I really needed was to pay attention to ideas as they arose.

Thus, the notebook. And thus my extremely ambitious research plan for the semester: read everything I've assigned my students. And have thoughts about it. And write some of those thoughts down.

It's so crazy, it just might work.


Comrade Physioprof said...

"But I'm not an idea person," I told some friends. "I'm basically not creative. I don't have a fertile mind. I mean, I'm insightful and whatever, and dogged as hell. Once an idea comes along, I can do more with it than most people. But they don't come around all that often, and I can't make something out of nothing."

This is an interesting comment. I view myself similarly, and so over the course of my career I have intentionally surrounded myself with very creative people to collaborate with.

My post-doctoral mentor was an extreme example of this. He was a daily torrent of wildly creative and novel scientific ideas. In combination with my own extreme analytical skills and--as you so well put it--doggedness, we had quite an awesome run together.

Flavia said...

CPP: unfortunately, there's not as much collaborative work in my field as in the sciences, but I think your general point is still applicable: if you know your weaknesses, you can take steps to compensate for them.

So far this notebook thing is serving that purpose for me. There are lots of things that come up in my reading that ordinarily I just don't pursue--a certain text, for example, might have a passage that, every time I teach it, makes me say, "wow! that's weird! what's up with that?" but because it's not relevant to anything I'm working on, I forget it the instant the class moves on to something else. I'm hopeful that this is a way of sparking new ideas that might coalesce into an article here and there.

(Still, I doubt I'll ever be someone who can have five different projects going at once--my brain is so centripetal that EVERYTHING becomes grist for whatever I'm obsessed with at the moment. Which is to say that everything I've written down in my notebook so far has some connection to the second book project.)

Withywindle said...

Beware the Professor-Catcher Club, Flavia Welsch.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I also work better focusing on a single project . . . but I generate ideas like nobody's business. This is a problem, because I easily get attracted to the new shiny thing and so wind up with huge backlogs of half-finished work.

Flavia said...


I guess that's a risk I'll have to take. Though if I lost my notebook, I suspect no one would be particularly offended (or indeed interested) in my secret thoughts about Milton's "Nativity Ode."

undine said...

Please tell us more about the notebook and how this works. I've been keeping an ideabook in Evernote, but a paper notebook sounds better.

Flavia said...


Well, I keep it near me when I'm working or reading, and I travel with it. It serves as the place where I keep research-related to-do lists (books to ILL, for example), or areas for further study, as well as ideas that come to me about a given project. So, if I have a great idea about how to frame a particular argument, or about what's going on in a text, I jot it down there.

That's all stuff I've done before, sometimes digitally and sometimes on scraps of paper, though I do like having it all in one place. What I'm doing in addition that's NEW is using this notebook to record unrelated, passing ideas about other things that spark my interest. So if I'm reading a text for class, and something strikes me as puzzling, I'll write that down with a question or note or two: is this a sign the author believes X? Is this an allusion to Y historical event? Is this like that other thing in that other poem? Has anyone analyzed this from Q perspective before?

The theory I'm working with is twofold: a) simply taking the time to write down fleeting observations makes me more likely to remember them, should a project come along where they're relevant, and b) having a whole notebook full of stray observations and ideas will, at some point, function as a storehouse for future projects. If I see a highly specific CFP, or if someone asks me if I'm working on anything relevant to a panel they're putting together, for example, I'll be able to flip through the notebook as a way of figuring out if I *do* potentially have 10 pages I could write on that subject.

Basically, it's a way of keeping lots of things on the shelf, well-labeled and easy to find, so I can start to recognize patterns in my own interests, think about productive future combinations, and that sort of thing.

Tonya Krouse said...

For what it's worth, I characterize myself as a person who's GREAT with having ideas, and not so great with the follow-through. That said? I've always made a habit of noting ideas - seriously, since I was an undergraduate - in a notebook (or, more recently, in the margins or in the front/back of books). And something I spend a lot of time on with my students is this notion of "having a topic," or "having ideas," and teaching them how to *recognize* potential ideas, i.e., it's not that you "don't have ideas" - it's just that you're not paying attention to the ideas that you have.

Now, these "idea" notes that I make... I probably only pursue about 1/10 of them, which is probably why I see myself as an "idea" person and not an "execution" person. BUT. Maybe those are the only ones worth pursuing? And maybe the trick of it is that I NOTICE more ideas than people who see themselves as dogged and single-minded, and really, it all meets in the middle somehow, if that makes sense.

Long story short: I think that the notebook idea is FABULOUS (not in the least because it's always worked for me :) )

undine said...

This is really helpful, Flavia--thanks. I've written down ideas before but never where the class materials are. Your post made me get out the notebook that I've been writing in all week, and everything's going in there for now, even morning prewriting.