Stroke of Genuis ~ Lost to the Cosmos

“Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea forever.”  ~ Will Self, novelist


idea (Photo credit: Tony Dowler)

The fact that our short-term memory can only retain information for three minutes explains a lot. Sometimes this can be a good thing, as there are things we would rather not even retain for three minutes. But how about those other things—those things that we want to remember?

On the rare occasion when I come up with a good idea, I am sure it is so good that I will remember it forever—no need to write it down. Inevitably, I am left with later trying to piece together just what that good idea was. And if I cannot find it in my short-term memory, then it probably got filed in that vast vacuüm (at least in my brain) called long-term memory, never to be excavated at will.

Why do we never get good ideas at convenient times? Why is it when we are weeding the garden (okay, this is just an example—and yes, I have weeded my garden—just not lately)or burning—err….I mean cooking dinner, or hiking in the Appalachians? (No, I have never hiked in the Appalachians—I am not even sure people do hike in the Appalachians. And second: No, I have not hiked all that often—but I am using my imagination here.)

Amy Peters, in her book, “The Writer’s Devotional”, says that: “Ideas can—and do—surface at any time, and sometimes at the most inopportune moments. Chopping onions when the next great thought arrives? Put down your knife, pick up a pen, and jot it down. A stroke of brilliance arrives while you are en route to the store? When you stop at a red light or pull into a parking lot, take a moment to write it down.”

I am not sure what world Ms. Peters is living in, but if I am chopping an onion, I am probably doing it to create one of my wonderful gastronomically and palate pleasing creations, and could not possibly stop the artistry to write down an idea! And anyway, my eyes will be streaming because I did not take one of those precautions you are told to take when chopping an onion, so I would not be able to locate a pad and pen anyway because my eyes will be gushing onion tears!

A stroke of brilliance on the way to the grocery store? Stop and write it down? I am lucky to have remembered the list I took painstaking time to create and probably left at home on the dining room table (and thus will forget something basic like eggs and have to make a trip back to the store, and on the way to the eggs go by the bakery and pick up something verboten that I bypassed heroically on the first trip.)

The other advice Ms. Peters gives is to keep a notebook by the side of the bed, and “When you wake in the morning, record any thoughts that may have come to you in your dreams. Many writers find inspiration from their dreams.” Those who find inspiration from their dreams do not have the kind of dreams I have. When I wake up from a dream, which is usually confusing to start with, I am generally in no mood to write it down.

My dreams consist of three themes: not being able to find my geography lab in Windsor Hall at the university I attended almost four decades ago (I think I found it three times the whole semester of first year); believing I am awake while I am dreaming and wondering if I could do things in this dream that I would not dare do in real life, but not being convinced totally that I am dreaming; or having some kind of nightmare—and who wants to remember that?

Having said all that, I do carry a notebook with me almost all the time. But I do not use it to write down random thoughts. Whenever I have done that in the past, I go back to the notebook, find the supposedly “good idea” and cannot make heads nor tails of it. In what I thought was a stroke of genius, like “the red dog never dies” or “why can birds sit on electrical wires and not keel over”, I find the stroke of genius not so brilliant.

So, I am left with all those “good ideas” swirling around, lost in the cosmos. And you are left to read this. Sorry.

Published in: on August 6, 2012 at 1:34 pm  Comments (58)  
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  1. I try to carry a notebook around, as I am quite fond of writing flowery words and descriptions when I see things. I haven’t done it in a while, but I should probably start again.

    Adieu, scribbler

  2. I love this post but I don’t agree with Will Self because I think the really good ideas always come back – now … what was I saying?

  3. Nice piece – enjoyed the comic element. I try & do what is advised such as carry a notebook, etc. but it just does not seem to happen.

    • does not happen for me either — except when I cover Council – but the notes are certainly not “inspired”

  4. I carry a notepad & pen since I started my blog. Most of the time it works – it helps my memory. Sometimes – the note of the idea becomes a puff of smoke – LOL

    • I like that analogy “a puff of smoke” — my memory seems to be a thing of the past

  5. Oh yes, I carry a notebook in my purse and have one by the bedside for all the good it does! When I wake up, I have only one thing on my mind and that is to get to the bathroom asap. The one in my purse comes in handy for writing down notes of what I forgot on another list–much like the one you left at home! LOL If I do get the idea of the century, by the time I pull over–it’s gone! Maybe what we need is a headset that allows us to talk into a recorder of some kind but if you’re chopping onions, do you want onion juice on the ‘on’ button? Good post!!

  6. This is so timely! I keep saying that I am going to start walking with a notebook to jot down ideas. I end up walking with the notebook, ideas coming at the most inopportune moments, and coming home with blank pages. It never fails. I had given up on it, but you have inspired me to start again, since, as I get older, my short term memory is a source of continuous disappointment!

  7. Ms. Peters must not have had young children that steal every notebook, scrap of paper and pencil in sight. My very best ideas all die a quick and possibly lonely death.

    • At my house it is scissors and phones that get taken (older kids-other interests)
      Your blog is full of your best ideas – what are you talking about

  8. This made me COL (Chuckle Out Loud) because when you have one of those magnificent ideas you need to write about it NOW! If I write it down and wait, like you said,, later the idea sounds absolutely idiotic or senseless! Good post.

  9. you are funny! so true–good ideas seem so good at the time–then you cannot decipher them later

  10. Funny post….my good ideas come at inopportune times like when I’m kayaking….hard to write down an idea while paddling.

  11. Oh, I can and many others I’m sure…relate. I thought I’d keep a file on my computer ‘ideas for blogs’ and when I think of something I write down one or two words only ..Then when I go back and see the one or two words it is not enough to generate what was supposed to go with those words…so I leave them thinking one day…I will remember …Diane

  12. I carry a notebook every where and some people shake their heads at me for it but I never know when inspiration will strike. I have a digital recorder for the car or my iPhone for capturing the thoughts on my drive to and from work. Than get to said destination and write it down. For me it works more times than not but there are days when I can’t stop what I am doing to write things down. Thanks for the post … genius shows up when you least expect it. ~Gail

  13. I carry a small note pad in my purse also. It is helpful most times, but like you, some of my saved thoughts are not so remarkable.

  14. I have nominate you for the Reader Appreciation Award..Diane See details and especially the sentence in red at

    • Thank you Diane, I am very honoured that you have thought of me and feel I am deserving of this.

  15. I feel you on this. However, I’ve decided to look at it this way– if I can’t remember my brilliant idea when I’m ready to write, it probably wasn’t that brilliant to begin with. There are flaws to this theory but for the most part, it works and I don’t feel so bad about losing ideas that may or may not have been good in the first place.

    • I think that is a very wise way to look at it – kind of if you were supposed to remember it, you would.

  16. Hahaha hilarious post! I can totally relate. Reminds me of the saying, ‘The biggest lie I tell myself is, “I don’t need to write that down, I’ll remember it.”‘

    • so true so true so true — but we believe it time and time again –good observation (lol)

  17. Yes,, good ideas come just before the moment my brain drifts into slumberland. I dutifully scratch them into the bedside notebook. Of course it looks like a slug left a graphite trail across the paper the next morning because nothing is legible. But I give my brain a pat and tell it good job, hoping that it’ll send nerve impulses to my sleepy fingers some evening and they’ll be in sync with those genius thoughts. Funny post.

    • love the graphite trail comment – thanks for stopping by and leaving some good and funny thoughts

  18. You know, I always get my best ideas right before I fall asleep, when I’m too comfy in bed to get up. I tell myself I’ll remember it, but most of the time the idea is gone for good. =[

    Also, I’ve nominated you for an award here!

  19. Great post honey 🙂

    I take a notebook with me EVERYWHERE! 🙂


    • me too – though that does not mean I always use it – much to my chagrin (sp?)

      • Lol 😉

        I tend not to whip it out at the dinner table when I’m out for a meal with hubby, but I’ve been so tempted lol 😉


      • lol – hard to resist isn’t it?

      • VERY! Lol 😉

        Wouldn’t want hubby thinking my notebook is more important though would I 😉


      • so very true ~ must keep harmony

  20. I’ve jotted ideas down on the back of receipts, post-it notes, gum wrappers, and my hand. I really should invest in a notebook! The ideas are fleeting!

  21. whatever you write seems to come from a great idea. so we’re thinking you might not need that notebook afterall.

    • now are you sweet or what – you’re just trying to single handedly (or doublehandedly?) make my day better – thanks so much

  22. Your commenters reminded me that my cell phone has a memo feature – just push 4 buttons and record. I was checking it out and found I have four of five memos from April of LAST year – that’s when I got my phone and the last time I recorded a memo. Because – I forgot I had it!

  23. A good post. Bit scary that I can only remember up to three minutes ago. Have to be quick with this comment. Bruce

  24. If a good idea only sticks around for a few minutes why don’t bad memories? One has use and purpose while the other seems to not. Some of my ideas come to me when I’m about to fall asleep. I wasn’t aware of your statistic but I did know I could never think of my idea by morning. There may be more wisdom in keeping a pad on the bedside table than a book. Thanks

    • It doesn’t seem fair does it? Bad memories do seem to linger–why not good ideas – there is something wrong here. 🙂

  25. I love your blog and especially this post! i carry a notepad, but I never use it! Perhaps I should start! Thanks for the inspiration!

  26. I try to but when I have it I don’t need it and vice versa, so I’ve found a great app for my android – evernote, jut brilliant!

    • good solution for you – I don’t have anything that needs an app – but I have hope for the future

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