Steven Johnson, on writing, and the power of a spark file.

Looking back at all the tools and techniques that I’ve developed over the years as a writer, it occurs to me that most of them are, in one way or another, grappling with two critical mental forces: the power (and weakness) of human memory, and the sometimes overwhelming drive to procrastinate.

Let’s start with memory, and put off procrastination for the time
being. (Appropriate, right?) There are a number of ways that your memory can get in the way of a good writing session when you’re in the middle of a project, mostly because you’ve remembered too much. But when you’re just starting out on a project, when you’re in that early stage where you’re still trying to figure out what you want to write in the first place—at this stage, it’s the frailty of memory that causes problems. This is because most good ideas (whether they’re ideas for narrative structure, a particular twist in the argument, or a broader topic) come into our minds as hunches: small fragments of a larger idea, hints and intimations. Many of these ideas sit around for months or years before they coalesce into something useful, often by colliding with another hunch.

The spark file is all of the things you find interesting, weird or funny or odd little ideas you’ve had, anything that falls under “inspiration” or “reference”. It makes up for the previously stated deficiencies in your memory. I’ve started one in Google Docs, as well as a visual compendium of pictures.

I remember in high school collaging together posters out of magazine clippings and awkward hand-lettered calligraphy. Then I’d “laminate” the entire thing with packing tape, so it could be rolled up easily and carted off to residence. I wonder if I still have them around here. They were definitely a deep investment of time. Don’t worry, I think there was only one or two pictures of cute boys on there — I was terribly afraid of my mom ever finding out that I found them attractive. (Of course, she did find out eventually who I liked. So did everyone else in my family, when they put me and my best friend on speakerphone and listened to our entire conversation. I’m not bitter about this at all. It’s only been 12 years.)