Trials and Tribulations of Writing while Sleeping

iphone notes screencapA few weeks ago, I dropped my iPhone in water. If you were wondering, those things do not float. As I pulled the phone out and dried it as best I could, all I could think about was my dissertation. I was in the throes of finishing a chapter, and I had a lot of really good ideas on that phone. In this post, I want to explain why my phone has become so important to my scholarly life.

When I started graduate school, I received all sorts of advice from colleagues about how to take and organize my notes on primary and secondary sources. Find the software that works best for you, make a system, and stick to it. But nobody told me that all of my best ideas might come while I was making dinner, walking around campus, driving, on the bus, taking a shower, and most frequently, just on the cusp of falling asleep.

It does not seem like I’m the only person to have this experience. Recently, Jill Lepore explained, how when she is in the middle of a writing project, “I dream about it. I think about it when I’m out running or picking up groceries — I think about it more or less constantly until I get done with it.” Unfortunately, Lepore did not explain how she keeps track of what she writes when she is not actually sitting in front of the computer. But I’m happy to tell you how I do! That’s almost as good, right?

It took me a long time to realize that I needed to have a plan for keeping track of these random strokes of, relatively speaking, genius and clarity. The ideas started out as a trickle when I began formulating an idea for my dissertation. At first, I thought I would just remember them. I rarely did though. That became a bigger problem than I could have imagined. It is not merely annoying or disappointing to know you thought of a brilliant way to frame an argument but you can’t remember it. It can be agonizing, and even paralyzing. Racking your brain to find that phrase, which in your mind’s eye is perfect, can take over. It can stifle your ability to think about anything else or write anything that you find satisfying.

My first solution was to use post-it notes. I had a pad on my nightstand, another in the kitchen, one in my car, and another in my backpack. Then I would just stick the notes on and near my keyboard. It was incredibly disorganized. Once the notes started piling up, I regularly forgot if there were any related to what I was working on at the time. If there were, I often could not find them. More importantly, I don’t write anything else by hand if I can help it. In fact I can barely read my own handwriting. This was an analog system, in my otherwise entirely digital world. It did not integrate with all of my other systems—for taking notes, for outlining, or for writing—and was doomed to fail.

Something along these lines might work for others though. I know plenty of people who use small notepads for jotting down dissertation ideas. The point is that the system needs to work for you.

Recognizing that I needed a digital solution, I started sending emails to myself from my phone. There was still no underlying organization to this. When I sat down to work on an outline or to write or edit a chapter, I had to sort through a disorderly mountain of emails from myself.

The system I ultimately settled on is very simple and jives with the way I work. I use 2 free apps on my iPhone—I have no doubt these or analogous apps are available on most smartphones or PDAs, and probably some mp3 players—“Notes” and “Voice Memos,” the former is a notepad and the latter a digital dictaphone. When I begin thinking about a chapter, article, or conference paper, I create an “ideas” file for the piece in “Notes.” I use this file to catalog thoughts that occur while away from my computer. For obvious safety reasons, I use “Voice Memos” to do the same thing while driving.

When I sit down to make an outline, I pull up the relevant “Notes” files and voice memos, read and listen, and incorporate whatever seems useful into the outline. “Notes” can also sync to iCloud, Apple’s cloud system, so you can access the files on your computer. I prefer to simply retype the best notes as opposed to copying and pasting them, if only because it gives me another opportunity to fine-tune them. Once I finish outlining and the writing process begins I make new “Notes.” I do the same thing yet again when I begin editing. It is hardly ingenious, but the phone is always with me, including when I finally sit down to write. Keeping both organized is easy.

This system should have been obvious to me at the outset. But it was not. Why? I think it took me a while to realize that formulating thoughts in the grocery store is an essential part of the writing process. I did not know to expect it, and so I was slow to take it as seriously as the rest of my work. I think this is emblematic of a larger reality. Turning research and thinking into writing is not a central part of what we are taught in graduate school, but it is absolutely essential for succeeding in graduate school and beyond. One of the wonderful things blogs like ours do, as we’ve seen time and again, is provide a forum to discuss these kinds of issues.

And yes, the phone survived.

One comment on “Trials and Tribulations of Writing while Sleeping

  1. […] There’s still time to catch up on your Junto reading before school starts! Enjoy our recent posts on the old world/new republic, the pleasure of reading Paine, Joseph Smith’s trip to Washington, how to Vectorize NYC history, why manufacturers remade American government, and the Suburban Plots of American men. Finally, as the fall semester begins anew, take a moment to review these handy tips on “writing while sleeping.” […]

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