For a writer, nothing beats a neat and orderly office; a clean and clutter-free desk surface; a carefully constructed outline; color-coded file folders with supporting materials that correspond with the outline; a cup of coffee that never gets cold; a sophisticated sound system that provides appropriate mood music that doesn’t put you to sleep but doesn’t get you engaged enough to hum or tap your toes; a family that understands you might be working even if you are at home; and as an extra hi-tech bonus, straight from Star Trek, the “cone of silence,” to shut out distractions. (The “cone of silence” might come from Get Smart.)
Did I mention a clutter-free desk surface and cup of coffee that is always hot?
I can dream can’t I? Like most writers I have a day job. Yours might be called mommy or insurance agent or teacher or preacher or barista or lawyer or salesperson. The day job and everything else life throws at us makes creating an ideal writing space next to impossible. And if we’re honest, even if we had nothing to do but write eight to ten hours a day, we would still probably have a cluttered desk and certainly have to warm up the cup of coffee regularly.
Trying to suppress the reality that writing under almost any circumstances is more than a little bit messy and chaotic—and living fully in the “paperless” digital world—I think one of the almost forgotten but greatest tools for the moonlight writer is the napkin. It actually doesn’t have to be a napkin; the back of a church bulletin or an out-of-date business card or an envelope works too. Even the ripped corner of a business report can work just fine—just make sure the boss isn’t watching when you tear it up.
The point is this: Great ideas for starting or fleshing out a short story or how-to or song lyrics don’t always come during dedicated writing time. Ideas are often serendipitous—floating into our consciousness like a butterfly—there for a brief moment and just as quickly gone.
You need a way to preserve your brainstorms when they come, to be used when you do have time to write. A nice leather journal is great but too restrictive and probably a sign you are trying to perfect a process that is imperfect. I used to keep an electronic file called “Ideas” but it wasn’t always accessible when I needed it, even if I do use Google Drive now. I’ve texted and emailed myself from my Droid, but my thumbs aren’t quick enough to keep up with brain activity. Notecards are ideal but they don’t fit in a front pocket and I forget them anyway.
No. In the spirit of what writing is, herding ideas that run every direction like a thousand over-caffeinated rabbits, I think the napkin is appropriate. It serves as a symbol of multi-tasking—who says writers don’t get hungry?—and what is better for cleaning up messes?
Cherish your ideas when they come by writing them down on the back of a napkin. And if you forgot to bring a pen, ask the waiter if you can borrow hers or his!
Mark Gilroy is a 30-year veteran of the publishing industry, starting with a stint as sports writer for a city newspaper when he was in college. His first two novels, Cuts Like a Knife and Every Breath You Take, featuring Detective Kristen Conner, have quickly garnered critical acclaim.