I'm always exploring new methods for brainstorming ideas, and streamlining the "good ones", into future writing projects. However last week, during a bout of spring fever, I looked at my cluttered desk covered with a stack of daily menus, on which the flip-sides I'd written short stories, quotes, and free-thinking thought, and told myself, "It's really time for a different system."
I've been keeping journals or pocket-sized notebooks on my person for years, but when I get into a time crunch having to be somewhere fast (and yes, I am one of those consistently late, rarely on time-types), I run around my apartment like a madwoman looking for that one specific booklet I had in my hands yesterday or the day before, just so I can continue working on a piece, a poem, or some series of play-on-words. Often in this rushed state, I usually end up leaving my apartment frustrated and empty-handed.
But what I have found in bartending late, alternating nights, is that my peak hours for juicy fodder require paper in a pinch, so as the dinner hour draws to a close at my place of employment, I scrap the nightly specials and really get to do what I do best: observe and record. This is almost 10-years of experience talking, working in this way and environment. Unlike my days off, where I have the luxury of sitting down at a computer with a routine, or writing free-hand in a comfortable or suitable place where I can be left alone to my thoughts, with minimal interruption. And let's be real. About 80 percent of my actual ideas come to me when I'm doing something else; experiencing something different, or meeting someone new. And more often than not, when I am behind a bar slinging drinks for patrons that little light goes on, and I have to stand there between the whiskey sours and exchange of money for banter, hunched over, scribbling out enough description to remind myself later of what I actually meant. And those loose papers stack up, and stack up, and I promise myself on my next free day I will transcribe this one, or iron out that one.
So, what do I do with all these observations of mine that seem to be accumulating with no end in sight? (Yes, a good problem to have as a writer, but bad for the small space in which I live). Well, this most recent inspiration came to me upon being shown by my sister, an old field guide with the indigenous plants, animals, and people of sub-tropical habitats. Flipping through the diagrams and charts and explanations, I was reminded of shadowing an old college class where we were to identify different kinds of fungi with the recommended literature and glossy photos of the Audubon Society. Then there was also National Geographic's, "Birds of North America", which I poured over the illustrations as a kid, like some kind of feathered porn-- there was just something about their methods of categorizing similar but different things, into neatly organized charts that appealed to me early on, and now that I think of it, could aide in my current creative pursuits.
Of course I won't be working with flora or fauna, or native vs. invasive species necessarily, but with characters and details that stick out for me as important to record--the anthropologist in me coming out-- and so I've started a binder of my "scraps"; a melange of loose clippings and standalone observations that will become my own sort of field guide-- a field guide for a day in a life of Sarah E. Caouette, People Studier, I guess. And maybe if I leave anything behind, and don't actually get a chance to finish one of my many projects, at least someday there will be something. It may still be in pieces (even then), but who really has it all figured out and put together the way they really want it, anyways?
Another writer who was known to do a similar thing with her observations, was Sylvia Plath. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, was published posthumously, and has the collection schematic.