When inspiration comes at the wrong time…drop whatever you’re doing, right? Not always so easy.
When I went to Armenia one glorious summer, fully expecting to delve into new writings about family history, ethnic identity, the genocide, you name it, what came to mind instead? An idea I had started several years before that I hadn’t finished. Avoidance of the personal? Procrastination? Maybe. But it just didn’t stop coming, and I had to get it down, even if it meant missing out on that one outing or tour. (The inspiration from that trip would come through in writing a few years later, actually).
At other times, in the throes of a PTA meeting, school event or church meeting, the juices flow and I want to run out and take copious notes, but instead I try to slyly put them on my IPhone notepad as if I’m taking notes of the event/meeting itself, nodding along with the speaker but all the while getting my freewrite done.
Or I’m on a writing deadline or in a tough spot with one script, and all of a sudden the inspiration comes with another idea (some would definitely call this procrastination if we don’t want to deal with a tough project). Should we at least jot it down?
Or, upon that exhausted first moment we plummet into bed and have some peace and quiet and literally don’t want to move — not even to the nightstand to get the journal and pen (because you DO have them there, don’t you?) — and you’re in the most comfortable position you’ve found in weeks…and then the most exquisite line pops into your head and takes your weak breath away. But you just don’t want to move, and your eyes are heavy, and you tell yourself: I’ll remember it in the morning.
But you don’t. It’s gone. And you kick yourself.
Or that flash of an idea first thing in the morning – but if you don’t get dressed now you’ll be late for work or late to take the kids to school. You’ve already pressed snooze; there’s no more buffer time. But you finally came up with the solution to that scene that just wasn’t clicking – til now. And if you don’t get it down now, the day will race by and you never will.
Be late for once. Get it down. You won’t be able to recapture it the same way later.
Here are some suggestions to deal with inspiration at the wrong time:
Have notepads and pens everywhere – bed, car, purse/attaché, kitchen, bathroom, office, living room. Whatever type you like – Mead paper & Bic, Moleskine and Pilot Precise, journal & Ticonderoga #2 pencil, IPhone/laptop, napkins & Crayolas, anything. Just have them everywhere. So that no time needs to be spent looking for something to write with – the tiny spare bits of time can be dedicated to getting the idea written down and done. Then you can continue as you were.
Learn to love – or at least tolerate — your recorded voice. Sometimes it’s easier in the car or in another setting to use the recording function on our cellphone (most of them have it now, like VoiceMemo for IPhone). Sometimes it’s easier to just say what you’re thinking, just like sometimes it’s easier to call someone rather than craft them a detailed email. And if you don’t have the voice recording function on your cellphone? Just call yourself and leave yourself a voicemail with your creative idea. Just don’t erase the message until you have it written down.
Sleep truly does make a difference. I rarely come up with strong creative ideas when I’m exhausted or cranky or preoccupied. And I find that the moments right before and right after sleep, are potent times for visionary, free thinking. But if we never sleep, we wouldn’t have those moments.
Repeat it to yourself, over and over. If you get a great idea and are in a setting – giving a speech, taking a test, changing a diaper, going into the doctor or x-ray — where you’re about to do something that you absolutely cannot get out of — repeat the idea to yourself at least three times, so that it’s engrained in your mind and you can remember it after your obligation is done. If necessary and possible, repeat it to yourself throughout the occupied time until you are free, then run to your car where you have kept your trusty notebook and pen and get it down.
Ask for help. Lean to a friend and say, “Remind me to tell you about my XYZ idea after we finish this meeting.” And if you forget, perhaps they won’t, and their follow up may jog your memory. Or when you get home at night, share your idea with your family. A week later when you’re frazzled with something else, the idea long forgotten, they might mention it and you’ll be grateful you shared it.
And if you do end up not being able to get the idea down, don’t worry. There IS more where that came from. Just give it space to wiggle out. By all means, never stifle your creativity or say “not now” or “that’s crazy” or “it’s no good.” Get in the habit of responding positively to it so that new ideas will be inclined to visit more often. Everything else can (hopefully) wait.
An earlier version of this post appeared in 2015.