Discoveries Don’t Belong In Notebooks

December 17, 2015
Bill Evans

Bill Evans completed a lot of gestures. And he also smoked a lot of cigarettes.

As a Midwestern lass, born and bred, I was shocked by just about everything when I moved to the desert for my first round of grad school. In Tucson, there’s no grass – just pebbles and cacti – and a decided absence of naturally occurring bodies of water. Contrary to my dreams, no one wandered the streets in spurs or belt buckles the size of dinner plates. Bugs were more like small dinosaurs that crawled up drain pipes and out of impossible cracks in the woodwork. Every August, the monsoon season turned the sky into a skin of bruises lit up by cracks of lightning. If it actually rained during one of these storms, the roads would flood in less than three minutes.

I just got a little carried away by language in that paragraph. But I went to Tucson to earn an MFA in creative writing, so I hope you’ll forgive me.

Long before I got serious about writing fiction, I used to fill up notebooks with an endless catalogue of details about everything from the way a room smelled to an observation about tree bark to snippets from conversations I overheard.

For example, I recorded a conversation between two hobos arguing about whether or not the sidewalk had DNA. As in genetics. I was on my way to a neighborhood coffee shop in Tucson when I encountered them. And then I spent the next 90 seconds pretending to rifle through my bag so I could listen in on their debate.

I was sure I would use that moment of dialogue in a story. I would have bet money on it.

But it never happened. And when I think about it, anything I pulled from one of those notebooks to use in a story always seemed off-kilter. After days, weeks, months passed, the detail lost its allure. It was a stowaway in whatever story I was working on and had to be sent back to the purgatory of the notebook.

But why?

A few weeks ago, I discovered this wonderful gem penned by Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg: “The notebook became a kind of museum of phrases that were crystallized and embalmed and very difficult to use.  I tried endlessly to slip the red and black blankets or the curls like bunches of grapes into a story but I never managed to.  So the notebook was no help to me.  I realized that in this vocation there is no such thing as ‘savings.’  If someone thinks ‘that’s a fine detail and I don’t want to waste it in the story I’m writing at the moment, I’ve plenty of good material here, I’ll keep it in reserve for another story I’m going to write,’ that detail will crystallize inside him and he won’t be able to use it.”

This isn’t to say that keeping a notebook of discoveries is a waste of time. But while you can preserve a detail in your notebook, you can’t later replicate that moment of arrival, when the discovery first stumbled across your path. So when an older discovery is then woven into a collection of newer discoveries that make up the skeleton of a story, it’s been shucked of its magic. It simply doesn’t belong.

In the liner notes of Miles Davis’s album Kind of Blue, the great jazz pianist Bill Evans describes a style of Japanese painting that’s rooted in the art of spontaneity: “He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.”

Evans goes on to say that, while these paintings may lack the complexity of works that take months or years to complete, viewers often say that there’s something in them that defies explanation.

Coming full circle, the creative process involves responding to the moment of discovery when it arrives and then completing the gesture, so to speak. Since you can’t later replicate the moment of discovery, you have only one option: Keep going.

At least sometimes.

As a writer, I want to be more deliberate about completing the gesture. It’s easy to collect discoveries. It’s much harder to follow them on a journey beyond the notebook and into the land of storyhood (or “something-more-than-a-sentence-hood”).

The same is often true in a creative profession like marketing. I’ve jotted down snippets of ideas that I thought would be solid once I fleshed them out at a later time, only to discover that the original razzle-dazzle was gone. In an industry that relies on that instantaneous firing of ideas, I wonder how we can be more conscientious about completing the gesture.

Creative process is a winding road without a lot of rules. And I like it that way.