I’m a terribly forgetful person. I’m prone to losing things I was just holding a moment ago or forgetting details of a conversation I just took part in. I’m bad with names, faces, places, directions, and dates. And perhaps worst of all, I’m prone to forgetting the word I was just about to use.
Most people experience this occasionally, even those with a brilliant memory. There is this moment where you feel the apparition of the word creep backwards along the edges of your brain before slipping inside a fold of dark tissue and dispersing completely. In that moment, there is a physical need to reach out and pull it forward, as if you could materialize and give voice to that word if only it was a little closer. It is the same feeling as trying to recall a dream or a distant memory from childhood that seems so vivid and urgent— right until the moment you’re beginning to describe it.
This is often referred to as “TOT” as in “Tip of my Tongue” because so often the feeling is described as “Oh, the word is right there on the tip of my tongue.” I love this description, because I like picturing a little ghost word balancing on someone’s tongue, either to be flicked out into the world as a vocalization or to accidentally be swallowed whole.
This is particularly frustrating when the message you’re attempting to convey is urgent, or when you’re writing and know that only one particular word contains the perfect music, connotation, and meaning for this particular line of poetry and you just can’t think of the darn thing.
It also happens on a larger scale for writers all the time. Occasionally a perfect line of dialogue or stanza will bubble up while I’m out in public or just about to fall asleep. Other times it’s even more important— a realization about which main character should die and how, or how the climax of a trilogy should unfold.
When these thoughts start to slip away, it’s frightening. A single word you might retrieve, but this is bigger, more complex, and far from common knowledge. It is unique to your brain, and if it’s no where to be found there, it’s no where at all.
If you find this happening to you as much as I do, here are some suggestions for how to approach the situation.
Before you lose the idea or the word, write it down. This only works if you’re aware that the thought is important while you’re first having it, and it requires fast action. Still, I find this method useful for myself and have adapted to it pretty well over the years.
You’ll need a small notepad, flashcards, or even a folded up sheet of paper that you can keep somewhere on your person wherever you go. Personally, I keep one notepad next to my bed, another on my desk, and a bunch of notecards in my purse. Once, one of my friends asked, “I never understand what women fill their purses with” and gestured towards mine. I opened it to reveal a wallet, notecards, and a collection of pencils and pens in various colors. If you’re not a purse holding sort of person, I recommend decently sized pockets.
I love that Anne Lamott discussed this same practice in Bird by Bird, because it convinces me that this is a perfectly normal thing for writers:
“I used to think that if something was important enough, I’d remember it until I got home, where I could simply write it down in my notebook like some normal functioning member of society. But then I wouldn’t.
…That is one of the worst feelings I can think of, to have a wonderful moment or insight or vision or phrase, to know you had it, and then to lose it. So now I use index cards.
… I think that if you have the kind of mind that retains important and creative thoughts— that is, if your mind still works— you’re very lucky and you should not be surprised if the rest of us do not want to be around you.”
-Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird (pg 135-137).
The hardest part isn’t actually remembering to write these things down. You quickly get used to that, and it honestly trains you to recognize important ideas, words, and lines more easily. The difficult part is keeping track of these notecards and remembering to use them the next time you can’t remember what your idea was. It’s all well and good if you remember that you’ve forgotten the essential adjective in that insulting line of dialogue for your villain, because now you can simply take out your flashcard, but it doesn’t help you at all if you can’t even remember that you had a line of dialogue written in the first place.
- Asking questions and exploring thought patterns.
“The notecard idea is great for people who remember to plan ahead, but what about those of us who forget the notecards themselves?”
One thing that helps me is to directly address the TOT feeling as it’s happening. (This strategy works best if you’re in a comfortable place of communication such as talking with a friend or writing alone at a desk. It’s not recommended during public speaking.)
Most of the time, your first instinct will be to ask someone else. If you’re in a large group, and you’re trying to remember a word, feel free. Or, if you’re on your own, try googling the idea and looking for definitions. There are even forums of people dedicated to helping you remember what that word was.
However, I don’t recommend this in some situations. First, if you’re only speaking with one other person, the tip-of-your-tongue phenomenon is often contagious and soon your conversational partner won’t remember the word either. Now, not only have you forgotten what word you were about to say, but the entire conversation is derailed and is now more about the missing word than the idea you needed the word to express. The whole idea slips away.
Second, if what you’re forgetting is an idea about a character or plot point or anything relating to your personal writing, you can’t expect anyone else to remember this better than you. Even if you find yourself giving in to the thoughts of “but I told them all about this idea a week ago and they really liked it so they must know!” you need to take a breath and remember that there is a very real possibility that their life is more urgent and worth their memory than your fiction (or nonfiction, or poetry) and no matter how much they loved everything you said, they won’t be able to recite to you what that idea was. There are, of course, exceptions, but I believe there are better ways than directly asking, “What did I say I was going to have that character do?”
So now what? That plot point is slipping and if you chase it backwards, it will disappear into the void and you’ll never get it back. Don’t chase it backwards. Try coming up from behind it and chasing it forwards.
“What are you talking about?”
I’m talking about a change of approach. Instead of focusing on trying to remember that exact idea, take a breath and start from the beginning of your thoughts again. Go all the way back to the beginning of your conversation or your page or your outline (or at least reasonably far back) and slowly follow your train of thought from there. Often you will take the same turns in logic, make the same associations, and end up with the same idea you had before. You’re not remembering it, exactly, but you are figuring it out again, which serves the same purpose. Sometimes it’s easier to think forward than backward.
- Using other words.
If you’re in the moment and need to communicate something urgently, but can’t get the word to come out, try using any other words you can to express that idea.
Your substituted words might not communicate it perfectly, and will probably end up leaving you using much simpler words, but you can continue on with your main thought. Dwelling on a single word might lead you to lose the entire idea. If you try this, you may face a little teasing from your conversational partner (especially if that person is a close friend or sibling) but they’ll probably remind you of the right word anyway. “Did you mean ____?” “..Yes that.”
If it saves your ego any, you can tell someone that you knew a better word and simply misplaced it: “I’m forgetting the word, but…”
“But what if that didn’t work or it’s more important and complex than a simple word? What if you forgot the notecards and retracing your thought patterns didn’t work? You asked people around you and searched online all to no avail. The word or idea is gone forever! Now what?”
Try writing it out using other words anyway. I know they aren’t the right ones, but it’s better than losing the whole thought. If it’s a whole climax you forgot, try creating a new climax and writing this one out. It won’t be the old one, sure, but this is a last resort and it’s better than having no climax at all.
Sometimes the act of creating a new bit of phrasing, line of poetry, character arc, piece of dialogue, or ending to a book can actually help your writing. While often your first idea was plenty good, sometimes the new one is fresher and escapes a few cliches or overused tropes. Or maybe your first one was as brilliant as you remember, but that only means you are capable of brilliance on your first try. Be confident. You’re a creative person and can come up with more than one good idea. And if your new idea is terrible, or you somehow remember the old one and still like it better in a few months, you can always come back and revise.
(*I actually advise this method as a revision technique for when you’re truly stuck on a piece of writing, even if you haven’t forgotten your original idea. Set aside whatever you’re working on, whether poem, essay, chapter, or outline and don’t look at it. Now start over and write the whole thing again.
“But isn’t this a waste of time and creative energy?” you might be asking. “I already wrote it once and I’m having trouble with moving forward, not with what I’ve already written. I don’t want to do that all over. The other one was better.”
Fair points, I feel the same way every time I do it. Get all that out of your system. Now read over both versions and realize you’ve just opened up entirely new paths to take. If you felt completely stuck on your original piece, you now have options to choose from. You can identify which aspects of which version are best and take those, and it might lead you to a place of new creativity.)
So start carrying some paper and jotting down ideas or trying to retrace the steps of your own thinking. It will help sometimes.
But even when you accidentally swallow your words or very important ideas, don’t panic. Your new phrasing may be better than the old. Being forced to explain your ideas without falling back on the simplest or most appropriate word to describe it may help you explore the idea more fully. Making peace with swallowed and lost words or ideas can lead to greater creative richness.
Trust yourself to think of new ideas that will be just as grand.