29 October 2014

Seventeen minutes

by Robert Lopresti

A few nights ago I was having a typically pointless dream -- something about listening to the Star Spangled Banner at a golf tournament, if you must know -- when suddenly things shifted and I had a story idea.  I mean I dreamed I had one, but also I really did.  And then the alarm went off.

I'm sure you have had the experience of percolating a brilliant idea in your sleep, only to see it vanish when you wake.  You may have also had that experience's more humbling twin: remembering the dazzling insight and realizing it was nothing of the kind.  One night in college I scrambled for a notebook at 3 AM and write down my lightbulb flash.  In the morning I found that notebook page and read, quote:

           A warehouse.

So far, I have not found a way to monetize that flash of genius.

But getting back to my recent experience, when the alarm went off I was still in possession of the story idea, and, to repeat, it really was a story idea.  Which meant that the clock was ticking.

My memory is that R. Buckminster Fuller said: From the moment you have an idea you have seventeen minutes to do something with it.  If not, you lose it. I can't find those words on the Internet, so maybe I have it garbled, but I find it good advice anyway.

Write it down.  Hum it.  Tie a string around your finger.  Do something physical to get that elusive thought into a second part of your brain.  Seventeen minutes.  The clock is ticking.

My father, by the way, had his own way of dealing with this.  When he was at work and needed to remember something he would tear off a sliver of paper and put it in his shirt pocket.  When he got home he would find the scrap and remember why he had put it there.  I know that if I tried that I wouldn't even remember that there had been a reason.  "What the hell is this here for?" I would say before carefully dropping the reminder into the recycling bin.

And speaking of remembering things, we were talking about my recent morning.  It would have been great if I could have turned on a light and written down my idea immediately, but my wife, long-suffering as she, would not have been pleased to have her last half-hour of sleep interrupted.  Besides, my audience was waiting for me.

You see, we have cats.  Six thousand of them.

All right, really there are just four.  I like to say that we have two pet cats and each of them has one pet cat.  Share the guilt.

But my first duty when I stagger out of bed is to fill two water bowls, one dry food bowl, and three wet food plates, scattered on two floors.

All the time I was opening cans and bags I was trying to keep my story idea front and center in my skull (fortunately feeding the beasts doesn't require a lot of intellectual activity).

When all the critters were temporarily sated I was at last able to sit down with a pen and notebook and write down what i had: the title, the premise and the last sentence.  Now all I need to do is grow a plot around those three points.  It may happen; it may not.  But by God, I didn't lose this one. 

Have any stories about saving/losing ideas, especially in the early hours?  Put 'em in the comments.

Oh, from top to bottom: Jaffa with friend, Blackie, Chloe, and Charlie.


  1. Like the cats!
    I've had two that have been very keen to assist me whenever I sit down to the computer. Needless to say, they have not, alas, contributed any good plots.

  2. I live with two dogs and two cats, so not only do I have to feed and water them all, but I also have to take the dogs out for a walk first thing, delaying my trip to my desk as long or (depending on my dogs' whims of the morning) longer then you.

    I found a solution using my iPhone. While walking the dogs I dictate and send an email to myself. My iPhone doesn't actually understand spoken English, but it gets enough of the words right so that I can usually figure out what I meant when I read my email later in the day.

  3. Yes! Had to draw with eyeliner on an old gum wrapper while stopped on the Gardiner Expressway in traffic once! True story.
    I don't have seventeen minutes, alas. I have maybe five. And that's if there's no bling around to distract me <I love bling :)

  4. I have written cryptic notes on everything from receipts to toilet paper (don't ask); some of which, if they were ever found by authorities, would doubtless lead to my being questioned at serious length... not because I was apparently some brilliant criminal but because I must be nuts...

  5. Michael Bracken's I-phone solution is a modern-day version of my old way of solving that problem, Rob. A lot of my ideas for songs, stories, and novels come when I'm driving alone. Rather than risk my life or someone else's by writing a note, I used to carry a pocket tape recorder and record my ideas. It wasn't necessary to use my hands to hold the recorder. Any ex-schoolteacher who can tell kids at the foot of the recess ground to "cut it out," can speak loud enough to be picked up by the recorder. The new phones make this much easier.
    Hope your dream idea works into something wonderful.

  6. I've lost those fragments more than once, but there was a time when I woke up briefly and wrote something down before I dozed off again. It actually made sense later when I read it again and led eventually to my story "The Undiscovered Country." On the other hand, it's pretty routine to jot down a note you can't make heads or tails of later.

  7. Glad to find I'm not the only one to jot down ideas and later can't read what I wrote. Guess I should type them instead.

  8. I love the look on Charlie's face. He's got the total "You talkin' to me?" thing going on.

    I use my phone too, these days. It seems to help -- partly because I find it easier to get back to sleep after snatching up the phone and rapidly dictating. If I have to fire-up my computer and type it in, I'm usually wide awake afterward. Uh ... obviously when I wake up in the middle of the night, not when I'm driving.

  9. Rod Serling supposedly kept a tape recorder by his bed and when an idea scared him awake he'd hit the record button and dictate a note to himself!

  10. Dixon, you are reading poor Charlie wrong. He is more Danny Kaye than Robert DeNiro. Not very bright, bad social skills (he bugs the other cats and STANDS on laps)...

  11. My brain works similarly. I can never recall the famous author (or poet?) who made the mistake of answering his door to a caller, and entirely lost the genius of the opus he'd been working on.

    But my ADD is more like Melodie in that I have perhaps two minutes, five if I'm very lucky, but the idea can evaporate in nothing flat, and there's no Redo button.

    I finally learned to keep a pad of paper and a pen by my bed. Once when I was working out a tough software problem, I carried pen and paper everywhere. Inspiration struck in the middle of a date while crossing the New York Harbor on the Staten Island Ferry. "Scuse me," I said and rapidly scribbled. Fortunately, my guest was understanding.

    My big risk is, like your 'warehouse', not noting enough detail. I've scribbled a page full of notes and weeks later looked at it and wondered what the hell I was thinking.

  12. Leigh, Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed he woke from a (opium-fueled?) dream with an entire epic poem in his head, but "a person from Porlock" (a neighboring town) knocked on the door for an unannounced visit and by the time he left all that was left was the famous fragment that begins:

    "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
    A stately pleasure-dome decree:
    Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
    Through caverns measureless to man
    Down to a sunless sea."

    In DIRK GENTLY'S WHOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY Douglas Adams explained who the Porlockian was, and why he was there...

  13. I was in that state just before REM and I engaged with each other (sadly, not the band), but sleepy enough to let my mind wander. It began creating a whole scenario which also made the story seem to write itself and so, I drearily awoke enough to write a short synopsis down on the pad of paper near me and then drop into full sleep.

    How did I think, I asked myself the next morning, that the following was anything near a synopsis that could jolt my memory and begin the development of a great story - "A man paints a basement"?



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