Why you MUST write down your thoughts and ideas: Part 1

Shelley Lieber • 6 min read

Although it may be obvious why a writer finds it important to keep track of and remember her thoughts, the simple act of jotting down your thoughts and ideas in a notebook or journal is a habit well worth everyone's time.

Why you MUST write down your thoughts and ideas: Part 1

"I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking," wrote Joan Didion in her famous essay Why I Write.

I do, too, yet these days I find I write so I don't forget what I'm thinking.

Although it may be obvious why a writer finds it important to keep track of and remember her thoughts, the simple act of jotting down your thoughts and ideas in a notebook or journal is a habit well worth everyone's time.

Why? Unless it's an especially timely idea or insight, few of us act on our thoughts as they happen. Due to busy schedules, we tend dismiss even a good idea for "later." Yet most of us don't remember what we thought about yesterday, much less in the past.

As a result, many of our good ideas are floating around in the ether. When left there long enough, they drift out of our grasp and into someone else's. How many times did a book or movie come out and the story seemed vaguely familiar...like maybe you'd heard it before? Or, a new discovery, solution, or even tech advance emerges and you remember that it was something that crossed your mind once upon a time?

Not every good idea we drop becomes somebody else's creation, of course. Often the moment we have that spectacular insight isn't the right time for it to be developed. George Lucas had the idea and even a working script for Avatar years ahead of its production. But he had to wait for the special effects technology to advance to his level of imagination.

Other times, we find if we wrote down an idea or experience just because it's remarkable or interesting to us, it may be days, weeks, or even years before we find out why. And that's exactly what prompted not only this post, but also a short story idea and a present-day insight to the significance of past events.

A few months ago I found a file in my "stories" folder that I had written so long ago, I'd forgotten about it. It was based on a dream I had early in my marriage to Joe, so early 2000s. It was sweet. I read it, smiled, cried a bit, and moved on with whatever I was doing at the time.

Not long after, I happened to be reading the journal I kept at around that time and I found the entry the story was based on. I probably recorded it originally because it's rare that I remember my dreams in detail and it was a cool dream to boot.

I went back to the file in my "stories" folder and played around with it some more, added a photo, and presented it as a short personal essay to my writing group the next week. It was well received and I decided to return to the journal to see if there was anything more from back then that I could mine for present-day use.

I found I had written a short story based on the dream several months after my original journal entry! It was partially written with many notes and variations, but it was an even cooler story as fiction. Huh! I haven't done much more with it at this point because I've gotten away from writing fiction due to writing this blog and my book, but it does hold future promise.

You'll find out more about that short story next week when I send out Part 2 of this article/post.

For this week, my big "aha" is associated with remembering I had that dream at all (I'd forgotten I'd had it or written it down). The significance aside from the cool story is that it made me realize I'd been sharing Joe's dreams much longer than I remembered. (This will make more sense once you've read the story below.)

That prompted me to re-look at my past in a new way. How much of what I have been attributing as "new" behaviors due my heightened sensitivity after Joe's illness and death were present for me but overlooked before?

All the insights, nudges, premonitions, and predictions I've felt most of my life have gotten little attention or respect from me. I'm only now starting to understand why I've always felt so "different" to the point that I spent years hiding my true gifts so that I could fit in with what I observed around me.

Did I get all this from discovering the journal entry about the dream in 2004? No, but it was a big confirmation that what I suspected was correct. And it's another sign that I'm finally headed in the right direction.

So, Part 1 of "Why you MUST write down your thoughts and ideas" is about keeping track of your most valuable resources...your thoughts. If you haven't begun yet, today is a perfect time to start. What if George Lucas had abandoned his vision for Avatar simply because he couldn't proceed right away?

Part 2 for next week will (I hope) contain the completed short story that arose from the dream... or at least an up-close-and-personal view into how my writing process develops. Just because you didn't follow that good idea before doesn't mean it's too late.

Here's the first short essay that was written based on the dream inspired by Edward Hopper's painting.

Life in a Hopper Painting

Early Sunday Morning, a large Edward Hopper print, hangs in my dining room. Although I was familiar with Hopper’s art, it wasn’t until I met my husband that I became aware of the artist’s name or the extent of his work. Joe loves the simplicity of Hopper’s perspective and how well he captures the realities of life on canvas.

Every morning Joe looks at the Hopper in the dining room when we have breakfast. Our dining room window faces east, and the room is filled with soft, yet bright light at that time of day. As we sip our tea, Joe looks at the Hopper and tells me how much it reminds him of his childhood and the street he grew up on in Brooklyn.

“That’s Charlie the Barber’s,” he says as he points to the barber pole. “And next door was Hop Hing’s Chinese Laundry.” Then he’ll grin and reminisce about a story from his childhood. Sometimes he tells me about his mother. Sometimes it’s about an incident with his friends.

At breakfast, Joe also tells me about his dreams. He has the wildest, most involved dreams and many of them are set in the “old neighborhood,” as he calls it. In many of his dreams, he is walking down his old street in Brooklyn, looking for his car.

I’ve heard his dreams and stories so often, they have almost become my own. I’ve never been to the old neighborhood—probably only have been in Brooklyn twice in my whole life—yet I have vivid visions of what the streets look like.

As a photographer, Joe captures images with the camera. As a storyteller, he creates vivid images with his words. How else can I know what a place I’ve never been to or seen looks like?

Last night I dreamed his dream. I was walking down Sixteenth Street in Brooklyn, looking for his car. The odd thing about it was I knew I was dreaming and kept asking myself how I got in his dream.

As I walked, I met all his friends from the neighborhood: Johnny the Limp, Louie the Schnoz, Tony Amatulli, Victor Dutton (“knows nuttin’”), and Pengie, the poor guy who got his nickname because his small, hooked nose looked like a penguin’s beak. I said I was looking for Joe, but no one knew where he was, although everyone had seen him earlier.

Someone told me he was in the candy store. Another person saw him on the stoop. Then someone said he was driving with Josephine, his high school girlfriend. It was then that I became curious. If I was in his dream at a time before he knew me, did I cease to exist?

So I sat at the drugstore counter and ordered an egg cream. I haven’t had one in years and it was great. As I looked out the window and thought about dreams and reality, I realized I was not in a dream or in Joe’s old neighborhood at all. I was inside the Hopper painting.


Image: Early Sunday Morning. Edward Hopper, 1930. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Text ©Shelley Lieber

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