Despite his reputation for being wildly romantic, when it came to his creative ideas, Beethoven was actually highly organized. He had a system for capturing and developing his ideas that’s novel and perhaps even worth adapting for our own purposes as writers. Here’s how it worked:
He saved every idea or snippet of an idea in a set of notebooks that were organized based on their stage of development. He had notebooks for rough ideas, notebooks that captured improvements of those formative ideas, and notebooks in which he fully fleshed out projects based on his initial ideas. These notebooks literally map the progress of his works of music as they were invented over time.
First, he would jot down rough ideas in a pocket notebook that he carried with him. Once they were captured on paper, he would leave them in his little notebook to germinate. A few months later, in a larger, more permanent notebook, he would pick up an idea from his pocket notebook that caught his fancy and develop it. He might take an original three-note phrase and play around with it, improving it, pushing it this way and that to see what happened. Then he’d let the new, improved idea sit in his second notebook and germinate again for another six months. Then it would reappear in yet a third notebook, not copied from the second one, but further embellished and enriched, ready to be used in a full musical orchestration.
What’s interesting about all this, is the way that Beethoven allowed his ideas to percolate and then constantly re-energized and transformed them. And here’s what’s even more interesting: this system remained a constant throughout Beethoven’s restless, nomadic existence. He moved more than 40 times in 30-odd years and his personal life was tumultuous. Yet despite his self-created chaos, he used this system of notebooks to anchor his composing and safeguard his creativity. Maybe we should all start carrying around special little creativity-capturing little pocket notebooks with us. Or do you have one already? If so, then write on!