Who needs a stinkin’ cocktail napkin?

There’s a kind of romanticized story about the brilliant author having a flash of genius in a restaurant and hastily scribbling the idea on a cocktail napkin. (I’m sure it’s not all that romanticized, actually, since the brilliant authors also tend to be the ones who forget their notebooks.) But what the story also points out is the whimsical nature of the Muse; ideas don’t always show up when and how they’re supposed to (i.e. sitting in front of your laptop preparing to do some serious writing, which, er, never really comes). No, in a lot of cases they appear at inopportune times—fighting with an armful of groceries, in the middle of teaching a class, right at the beginning of the baby’s night feeding (just went through that last one myself). Now some of these things we can save on voice recorders, cell phones, things like that…but a lot of the time we don’t get to record the idea in some form for a while, and by the time we have the chance it’s gone.

Imagine it: thousands of incomplete ideas floating around the collective unconscious, never to be developed again. Though if it’s true that we can pick up ideas from the stratosphere, I guess someone will get to use them eventually. But either way, the person who thought up the idea is out of luck, right? Could we all be ten times as efficient if we could just develop these incomplete concepts into full-blown novels of Pulitzer perfection?

I doubt it. The truth is that some of our ideas aren’t nearly as good as we think they are at first. My own early writing history is filled with the shattered wrecks of what seemed like brilliant ideas at first until they ended up on the page, where things didn’t work out quite as well as I might have hoped. In a way, this is the problem of E-mail—the more instant the communication, the faster we can send our ideas from place to place…and the more likely that the ideas might not be so great upon arrival. (This is why I wouldn’t hold out much hope for the imminent arrival of the “writing via IM revolution,” by the way.) I think the vast majority of ideas we get aren’t actually good ones…but they lay the foundation for good ones in future, or at least give us a sense of what really won’t work in a given scene or section, and that’s the case whether we record them for posterity or not. And some ideas don’t vanish forever, in any case—we’ll lose them for a while, but they’ll come back around when we’re in a better space to use them.

All of which suggests that we shouldn’t be quite so freaked out every time we lose an idea we think is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Though if you put a slice in a cocktail napkin, then you might really have something.