Ian McMillan: Ideas are great, just make sure you can read what your write

I always tell people who want to become writers that they should carry a notebook at all times. That's a piece of simple, good advice that was passed on to me by people much wiser than I am but the addendum to that advice is: Just make sure that what you write is legible.

Ian McMillan

Print clearly. Write it in capital letters if you wish. Don’t do what I do and grab an idea as it flits across your brain and scribble it down as fast as you can and then forget it and come back to it weeks later and try and decipher it. You may as well try to interpret The Rosetta Stone or The Domesday Book’s first draft. And my trouble is that once I’ve written down the idea I forget it because I think I’ve safely committed it to paper.

It happened to me the other day. An idea flashed up like an alert on a smartphone. I jotted the idea down and let it slip from my memory and then a couple of days I returned to the notebook to read it and see if I could make anything of it.

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I gazed at the page. I saw what appeared to be a tangle of railway lines on a complicated map, or an instructional diagram showing spiders how to dance the foxtrot. It was certainly something visual, and not something that could be easily read. I tried to make out individual words or failing that, hints as to what individual words, or even parts of words or fragments of letters, might be.

I read aloud what I thought it said, hoping that the speaking of the mess might untangle it and point it towards meaning. My voice echoed in the otherwise empty room as I intoned ‘Hardly blue fight that muscle’ It made no sense, and yet at the time I was moved to write the words down I must have thought I’d come up with an amazing idea. Hardly blue fight that muscle? I said it to myself over and over again but it was still as though I was speaking a language that I’d never even learned.

I tried to remember what I was doing when I came up with the idea, to jog my memory. I think I was walking down the street and I was staring at a bloke with a combover that was blowing in the breeze like the flailing tentacles of a frightened squid. I remembered I stared at the bloke. I seem to remember that I whistled a song. But which song was it? I sang, tentatively, ‘hardly blue fight the muscle’ in a variety of different styles and tunes and although it sounded all right as Elvis singing Suspicious Lives but not good enough for the idea, and anyway why would I have an idea about Elvis and write it down?

It was something to do with the hair. It was something to do with the way the combover had failed. It was something to do with the strong breeze. Hardly blue fight the muscle: no, I’m afraid there’s nothing there. I’ll keep staring at the phrase to try to recall what it meant. It was a really great idea.

Any ideas?