QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Writer's Portable Brain: Keeping an Idea Notebook

By Ash Krafton | @AshKrafton

I was a pharmacy intern in the early nineties, long before the digital age bloomed. My kids still can’t believe an age of paper resources ever existed (apart from dinosaurs, at least.) But yes, kids, once upon a time, people went to college without iPads or netbooks. We just had to memorize entire textbooks because it wasn’t convenient to carry around forty-five pounds of knowledge.

Trouble with being an intern was, well, being an intern. We were students who didn’t know everything because memorizing entire textbooks was a very difficult feat. I mean, a brain can only hold so much. So, we spent fortunes on pocket-sized manuals and stuffed our white coats with them and prayed that the question that got fired at us during hospital rounds would be one that had an answer in one of those books. We also carried little notebooks inside which had clips and notes and other sorts of valuable information. Every time we heard or read something useful, we’d tuck it away in the notebook. Those little books became known as our portable brains.

A few decades later, I barely think about those stacks of textbooks and pocket references. I’m comfortable in my practice and, thanks to innumerable digital resources, I can easily look up anything I don’t know. One thing I never gave up, however, was my portable brain. It just has different wrinkles in it, these days.

My portable brain no longer contains pharmaceutical nuggets or body surface area calculation shortcuts. It’s become somewhat more eclectic…and a lot more fun.

The Writer’s Portable Brain

One thing is still true today: my brain can only hold so much. I’ve got kids’ band practices, dentist appointments, and work issues clogging up my grey matter. (And I thought I had it bad in college. Oh, to be a kid again.)

While I am inextricably connected to my smartphone, I’m rarely seen without a notebook--much to my tech genius-husband’s chagrin. I’m the Analog Kid to his Digital Man. I like paper: the touch of it, the feel of it, the smell of it.

My notebook holds more than just words, those hastily scribbled lines that come to me when I’m on the way to work. It’s got song lyrics and photographs. Web links and museum tickets. I think it may even contain a playlist for every story I ever started. Every time I come across something inspirational or relevant, it goes into the portable brain.

After all, I never know when my muse will need a boost.

Random Access Memory

We write what we know--but we can’t know everything. That’s discouraging, to pharmacy students and writers alike. A portable brain can give us the confidence we need. There are answers in there, ones we might need in a pinch.

As the months went by in my internships, I refined the contents of my portable brain. I learned to organize it for fast reference. I removed bits that I’d memorized and ditched things that weren’t as critical as I’d originally thought. It became a lean, mean, knowledge machine.

My current PB is so much different. It’s a right brain-left brain thing, I guess.

The notebook isn’t divided into neat sections, photos in one spot and poetry lines in another. It’s a lot more linear. One thought leads to another, and that stream of thoughts is reflected in the way my pages look. It makes sense to no one but me.

And that’s okay. Every brain is different—and our portable brains are as individual as our organic ones. There is no single right way to keep a portable brain. We have the freedom to create it in our own style. After all, our muses want to have comfortable digs, don’t they?

For me, inspiration may be born in an architectural pattern or a grassy patch or a scattering of beads in a bowl. A photograph, easily captured with my ever-present phone, catches the muse and traps her—mine for future tapping. Analog Kid that I am, I like to print those photos and tuck them away inside the PB.

Sometimes, a song sets me off on a tangent. A line or two, tucked away in the brain, accompanies the thought I’d stumbled across. I can go back to the muse when I have time.

Most often, though, the notebook is there for moments I can’t write. It’s true that writers do most of our work without writing down a single word. Stories brew in our minds while we are busy doing other things—washing laundry, driving the kids to school, getting our day jobs done. We never really stop writing. There’s always a plot we’re following. A flash of dialog that works itself out. And sometimes, our computers are nowhere to be seen. Can you bear to lose those words forever? I can’t. Portable brain to the rescue.

Paper or Plastic?

Of course, not everyone is as attached to hard copy as I am. Smartphones make it easier than ever to serve as our portable brains. You may already have the start of a splendid portable brain in your hand right now. Use it. Develop it. Fill it with muse food, everything you come across that may stimulate your writing later on. A digital portable brain can easily bookmark websites and hold photo galleries. You can connect with Google Docs or Skydrive and tap your forebrain into them. I use those things, too. But my sentimental attachment to papery things means my notebook still holds a place in my tech case.

Maybe one day I’ll open a Portable Brain Tea House, where writers can meet for Darjeeling and cookies and a chance to swap notebooks, just for a chance to share and show off our muses. Kind of like scrapbooking for brains.

They are scrapbooks of a sort; they are tiny chronicles of a writer’s journey, the paths our minds wander when left to their leisure. Like any scrapbook, they should be filled with the places our muses would most like to visit again.

We can all use an extra brain once in a while. A portable brain may be the solution—and, at least this one, you don’t have to keep in a jar. Bonus right there.

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who resides in the heart of the Pennsylvania coal region, where she keeps the book jacket for "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" in a frame over her desk. Visit the Spec Fic Website at www.ashkrafton.com for updates on the release of her debut novel, Bleeding Hearts, forthcoming in early 2012 through Pink Narcissus Press.


angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

I'm a moleskin fan and have always had one in my pocket with a selection of pens.

Ash Krafton | @ashkrafton said...

One pen is never enough, is it?

(I'm not allowed in that aisle at Staples without a chaperone. I tend to get carried away.)

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

I looooooove spiral-bound notebooks. Fortunately, I have no chaperone (mwah ha). ;-)