Going through old notebooks is like watching old videos of yourself: It highlights how embarrassing you used to be and what poor decisions you used to make.
It was only when I started university that I began to record my ideas in a notebook. Before that, I never wrote regularly. I suppose I had never taken my writing seriously enough to keep a mostly-empty book of bad and pretentious ideas. Now I take notes religiously, partly because I don’t want to forget a brilliant, million-dollar idea, but mostly because when I’m famous, I’ll want to see how much my old scribbles go for at auction.
When I began keeping notes, my eagerness was stronger than my powers of discernment. I wrote down any old nonsense. In them I see incredibly strange and ridiculous ideas, ideas I wouldn’t find in any of my contemporary notebooks. And this makes me wonder, have I become boring? Or, worse, am I just mistaking being boring for, well, being a more mature writer?
Perhaps the best thing to do would be to show you excerpts from my old notebooks and then work out why my notes have gone from scattered and strange to careful and controlled. So without further ado, my unedited and unashamed notes.
Notebook 1 – 2011:
- Play Idea – Student/Teacher Affair
- A teacher is in love with a student
- Title: FISHING BY THE POWERPLANT
- Adam and Eve Novella
- Adam and Eve rewrite, written as Adam talking to God (doctor?) until he leaves hospital having had a broken rib.
- Falling from a tree/snake related if possible?
- Meets Eve through this incident ‘from his rib’
- He is alone, no family, no job, no idea of the world – disabled? Unaware?
- TOM THE WIZARD TRAIN
- MEN – Woody Allen, Norman Mailer, Charles Bukowski
Notebook 2 – 2012:
- Write a play about love and how bad it is.
Or, begin with a terrible play about love – play within a play – set in the future.
- Apocalypse – During then after
- Opening – ‘The scorpions are coming.’
- Halloween theme – two men in a pub. One realizes his friend is the devil.
- Short Play
- Everyone wins the lottery.
- Country Boys, episode one.
- He turns up at the door, cow’s giving birth and he has to do it.
Notebook 3 – 2014:
- Dodo story
- Dodo at some point – time travel.
- Mainly Dutch sailor point of view with dodo sides.
- *But we don’t know it’s a dodo
- Preface it in the modern day, someone being hypnotized
- They’re hypnotized to remember the cause of their –
- Hypnotized by a charlatan who says it’s down to a past misdeed.
- TV Drama
- A Hippie Commune
- Murder mystery? Invading stranger? Conspiracy? Supernatural.
- The Fake Death
- He is in the field.
- HE MUST REPLACE THE OLD MAN’S GUN WITH BLANKS, or THE OLD MAN MUST TAKE HIS GUN WHICH HAS BLANKS.
For fear of revealing too much, I will end it there, and let the rest of my fragmented ideas and half-written mental bursts remain a mystery.
When I remind myself of these old ideas and type them out years later, I realize they aren’t so far from the thoughts I have now. Some of them I’ve dismissed more than once. Maybe it’s not that I become more mature or more boring. I might have just become more discerning. Perhaps my degrees and daily writing rituals have, in fact, made me better.
Good for you, you might be thinking, as you wonder whether this is MFA-sponsored content. For only the small price of two-years’ tuition, you too can rid yourself of bad ideas! But this isn’t the point. I have so many bad ideas. Maybe more than ever. It’s just that I no longer take any notice of them. That’s what becoming a better writer is about, isn’t it? Years ago the Adam and Eve novella might have made me think I’d hit my million-dollar idea. Now, however, I just think, I could never make that work.
I have also worked out that having bad ideas is unavoidable. Our brains aren’t supposed to be able to form perfect stories or invent meticulous fictional scenarios. They’re supposed to be able to recognize faces and be afraid of predators and remember where the tasty fruit was. We’re pushing the brain so far beyond its blueprints that it’s no wonder it occasionally misfires and gives us “TOM THE WIZARD TRAIN.”
Then we have to look at the flip side of this coin. Though it might go haywire enough to throw out bad sitcom ideas and vapid script premises, this also means it’s bound to throw out something good every now and then.
Having a whole heap of terrible ideas behind me is just fine. It has taught me to be more picky with how I spend my writing time (and to recognize a good idea when I see one). It’s made me see that having a lot of nonsense going on up there just means I have the kind of brain that is going to keep spewing out ideas, good and bad.
So whether you’re a young writer ashamed of your terrible ideas, a new graduate desperate for a new project to focus on or a seasoned professional, wondering if you’ll ever have a new idea again, I suggest taking a look through your old notebooks. If nothing else, it will remind you that you have a mind that is always working to find that million-dollar idea, even at the cost of having a lot of bad ones.