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. (I wrote a chapter about this phenomenon in my last book, Where Good Ideas Come From.)