Idea index fund
Over the past year, I've begun to find ways to intentionally create something I call (for now) the Idea Index Fund (IIF).
An IIF is any way of gathering and organizing fodder for future projects. The problem is that hunches, notions, inklings, observations, and fancies are not easily wrangled. Even if you manage to get them all in one place, it can be hard to find the things you're looking for when you need them.
My “idea indexing” is a series of tiny habits with accruing results. A lot of my system for capturing, categorizing, resurfacing, and combining ideas is dependent on a note-taking tool called Roam Research. I'll skip anything Roam-related for non-Roam-users, but I will advocate for Roam as a useful tool in this endeavor to organize boatloads of material and ideas.
Small digression: Roam lets you tag any block of text with as much metadata as you want, so I could read a news story about how a one-legged drifter found peace volunteering on a pig farm, and I could tag that block Character for the drifter and Concept for finding peace volunteering on a pig farm. And if I like pig farms enough, I might add the tag Setting. I could also do freewriting exercises and tag anything interesting that comes up, allowing me to find that one specific Character idea when I’m looking through all of my other Character ideas.
If you're interested in that aspect of idea organization, reach out to me on Twitter @bradyevanwalker. On to the rest.
My personal IIF hygiene begins with The Somedays Journal. This revolves around four prompts taken from screenwriting teacher Corey Mandell. Then there's the daily practice of Forestry. That's right: Forestry. More on that later, but first...
Part One: The Somedays Journal
The following four prompts aren't magical (I don't think), but they get at some powerful inner motivators of anger, fear, curiosity, and desire.
These are the prompts:
The one thing that makes me more pissed off than anything else right now is...
My absolute worst fear in life right now is...
The biggest problem I'm trying to figure out how to solve is...
If I could have a magic wand and have one wish/fantasy granted, it would be...
If they existed, I'd be interested to read responses from different points in my life, especially around life’s big moments, not because I'm sentimental, but because it would give me access to a different frame of mind.
This exercise is teaching me how to be aware of my own emotions and preoccupations. and I believe It prepares me to explore the inner lives of characters, especially characters who are least like myself. Plus, it’s useful to respond to these as your characters.
In addition to the “reps of an exercise” component, all of my responses are usable. If I’ve got a thinly imagined character, I can play around with assigning them different fears, furies, and fantasies until they start to accrue some meaning for me. And it’s useful to have a file of infuriating paragraphs before heading into a tense writing day.
I'm experimenting with answering these questions around three times a week, because I want to approach them with some amount of interest and conviction more often than not. Sometimes, if I don't feel like doing my own, I interview my 6-year-old, and that's helpful too.
And now, let me tell you about…
Part Two: The Daily Forestry
This is yet another concept taken from Corey Mandell, to whom I owe a great debt with regard to my thinking on the creative process and how story works.
A Story Forest is the broadest category, and could be anything describing the character’s story world, whether it be “Marriage” or “Studying to Become a Plumber” or “The Steps of Making a Pot of Coffee.”
A Treetop is more specific but still leaves much up to interpretation, like the very beginnings of a scene. Under “Marriage,” you might find “discussing having children” and under “Studying to Become a Plumber” you might find “the first day of apprenticeship.” Under “Coffee,” you’d have “pour water” and “grind beans.”
And a Tree is a more detailed imagining of a scene.
Treetop: Going on a blind date and realizing that they're your ex.
Tree: Going on a date in a new town where you don't know anyone and at your loneliest and lowest of lows, you finally get a date, and who is that date? It's not just any ex, it's THE ex, and she's in witness protection and living under an assumed identity after she blew the whistle on Facebook. Later you'll find that she lives in the apartment next door and has taken up baking your favorite food while hosting her many lovers.
In Daily Forestry, we don't worry about the Tree level. Instead, every morning I randomly pick from the following folder of documents and add 10 quick Treetop ideas. Once a week, I commit a half-hour to generate 50 Treetops for a specific folder. Below is a list of my Forest categories, leaving out project-specific folders.
Forest.After a Hurricane
Forest.Robbing a Bank
Forest.Things Bored People Talk About
To get an idea of what this looks like, my first ten entries in Forest.Childhood are:
Going with your parents to strange, annoying places.
Being stuck in a car for hours.
Being woken up early for school.
Not wanting to go to sleep.
The existential importance of watching cartoons.
Not being able to explain the depths of your picky eating habits.
Wanting to move from the crib to the bed.
Wanting to get your ears pierced.
Only wearing skirts, then only wearing shorts and pants.
Hating your parents' music.
As time goes by, I might have a character experiencing childhood or adulthood. I could see myself writing a character who is either employed or unemployed. Having a list of events that someone experiences while married would help my creative process when it comes time to find things for married people to do.
What’s great about this approach is the fact that I now have a place to quickly file things away when I hear a funny story. Did Ted’s kid do something creepy again? File it away under Childhood and cross-tag with Parenthood. Karen just told me about getting stranded in the desert with her mother-in-law this weekend. File it away under Marriage.
Treetops can also be run-of-the-mill practicalities like “Setting up your new computer,” “Getting your building ID,” and “Buddy system orientation.” for the “New Job” forest. When things come up in life, like my family experiencing Hurricane Ida, I can create a practical document to use if I ever write about recovering from a hurricane.
Documenting life as it’s happening is also more fun when it’s presented in a way that I can use. With this little practice, I can document my children’s lives through Treetop story events. Writing a story about childhood would then become a chance to intentionally revisit those moments and mine them for creative ends.
I would love to share this idea more widely and create shared Forest databases, but the best part of the Daily Forestry isn't the productivity of it. It's the gratifying scrape of old memories and recent observations that wouldn't land on anyone else’s list. These momentary firing of synapses are fleeting, but if I can capture it at the right time, it might be what I need for my next story to succeed. And even if that’s not the case, I have a chance to list and categorize the most profound events of my life.
As cheesy as it sounds, the point of The Somedays Journal and The Daily Forestry is to be more me in my writing. In a world that treasures speed over everything, it gets hard to invest yourself in the grind of providing “content.” But you can build a daily practice, like a rainy day fund, so you have the tools you need to make sincere work.
If you're interested in learning more about anything written here, feel free to reach out on Twitter @bradyevanwalker and check out this post on building an idea index around stray thoughts.