This evening, I solved a mystery that has been plaguing me for years, but in order to understand the context, we have to begin with the question that writers often get, “Where do you get your ideas?”
I answered this question eight years ago, but it is worth revisiting here. Harlan Ellison may have gotten his ideas from an idea factory in Schenectady, but I get mine in the shower. Of all the places from which to get ideas, the shower is the most inconvenient. I don’t recommend it. Usually, the idea rises like a soap bubble, just as I have finished lathering up my hair with shampoo. Under those circumstances, it is impossible to dash out of the shower and scribble the idea down. You have to fight for it. And like a soap bubble, the idea is clear but delicate, so you have to keep a close eye on it, and avoid jostling it lest it burst.
This is not as easy as it sounds. If the idea is strong and clear, it is one thing. But if it is a fleeting thing: the perfect line of dialog for a character, worded just right, then it becomes a lot more tricky for me. My shower becomes an exercise in repetition, and I can be heard muttering the line over and over, like someone trying to remember a phone number.
I have often wondered why a shower stimulates ideas at the rate that it does compared to just about any other activity. I think it is because it is the only time in my day when my mind is completely unburdened of other activity. My default idle is reading. If I am not doing anything else during the day, I am reading, whether a physical book, a magazine, a newspaper, or listening to an audiobook. There is no time in my day when I just sit and do nothing, just let my mind wander–except for the shower. I guess my mind, cooped up all day like dog, runs free once I hit the shower. It is remarkable how often I get useful ideas in the shower. These can be ideas for anything–blog posts, stories, dialog, working out a problem I’m having with something I am writing. The shower rarely fails me.
Of course, it is difficult to capture the idea in the shower. You have to treat it carefully. But I’ve learned not to worry too much about that. With the except of the perfect line (or dialog or prose), if the idea doesn’t make it out of the shower, I assume it really wasn’t that good of an idea after all. Or perhaps I just tell myself that to make me feel better.
How does this relate to the mystery that I have finally solved? Well, let me tell you… beginning a few years ago, I started to experience a strange phenomenon in the shower. At some point, I would reach for the shampoo–and hesitate. I could not recall if I had already washed my hair. Washing it twice is no big deal. It just takes more time. But it bothered me that I had been so preoccupied that I couldn’t even remember if I had washed my hair. This didn’t happen all the time, but every now and then, there’d I be, my thoughts drifting and I couldn’t recall if I had already washed my hair.
This evening, in a flash, it came to me–in the shower, of course–that there seemed to be a direct correlation between my absentmindedness and the abundance of ideas that come during the shower. When the ideas are ripe for the picking, I get into that same mental state that drivers get into when they leave the office, end up in their driveway, and have no memory of anything in between. I go on autopilot, my mind completely focused on the emerging ideas, and the lizard part of my brain taking care of the basic functions, like washing my hair.
If you are wondering, the idea that came to me in this evening’s shower–one in which I really had to focus because I wanted to keep the wording precise–was: “Harlan Ellison may have gotten his ideas from an idea factory in Schenectady, but I get mine in the shower. Of all the places from which to get ideas, the shower is the most inconvenient. I don’t recommend it.”
I’m pretty sure I washed my hair twice.